Monday, February 02, 2009

Record Ticket Sales In January

From an AP story on this weekend's box office numbers...

North American box office revenues were up nearly 20 percent in January over the same period last year, reaching a record $1.03 billion for the month. Attendance was up 16 percent over last year, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media by Numbers.

"This is exactly how you want to start a year," Dergarabedian said Sunday. "I think people feel movies are a good value for their dollar. Going to a movie is a habit people aren't willing to break."

Hey, money may be tight but movies are doing well - someone tell Wall Street!

And that's not just a record January as far as money is concerned - it's a record for *ticket sales* - which means more people are going to the movies!

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: INTERESTING PROTAGS - Making your Protagonist more interesting than that supporting character in scene #37.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Food Court BBQ chicken.

Movies: TAKEN - I don’t think it’s any surprise to you that I love kick ass action movies. When I first saw the *trailer* to TAKEN, I posted it on the blog because it looked like the kind of movie I would see on opening night. You know, a foreign film starring a serious actor. I was on somebody’s list and saw NIKITA at a screening long before the film came out. They told me it was a French action film, and as a fan of Melville and Chabrol and some of the other French genre guys, this excited me. But I was unprepared for even the opening shot! Wow! This guy Luc Besson was great! So I immediately rented SUBWAY and couldn’t wait for LEON and have seen everything he’s done since then... and wish he’d go back to directing. But directing a film may take a year or two, and he can co-write and produce a handful of films a year. I have no idea how he hooked up with the KARATE KID writer, but I wish it had been me instead. The films he and RMK have co-written always seem like they needed a couple more rewrites and maybe someone every once in a while to say “Bad idea, let’s do something else here” - but they are always good junky action entertainment. I was there on opening night for TRANSPORTER 3 and I was there on opening night for TAKEN.

Liam Neeson is one of those actors with a foot in serious drama and the other foot in the DARKMAN costume - I think he likes movies like this. Great that he’s playing the lead, here, because it turns a pretty much by-the-numbers revenge film into something better. It’s not a great film by a long shot, but imagine if they had cast Ah-nuld (oh, wait, they did and called it COMMANDO). Neeson brings not only acting to the role, but *attitude* - he can be serious and playful at the same time. When Neeson is torturing somebody, his taunts are light and amusing.

One of the things I liked about the film is that they allow Neeson to do some acting - he’s a divorced dad who seldom saw his daughter while she was growing up, and now that she’s almost an adult has retired and put his life on hold to try to make amends. They get the divorced dad thing right - it’s messy, with all kinds of unresolved issues. There is no happy ending - family gets back together feel in this film - this is a family torn apart and it’s going to stay that way. Neeson has never missed her birthday, and is stressing over her birthday gift - a karaoke machine. He reads over the specs and keeps going back to the electronics store - showing that he’s a guy who is all about the details and thinks through everything. When he wraps the gift, he carefully creases the corners of the wrapping paper - making them perfect. He is Mr. Precision.

We get a great scene at the birthday party - his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) has married a millionaire (played by completely underrated brilliant actor Xander Berkeley) and the party is at this mansion with heavy security. Neeson wants to give the gift to his daughter personally, but security wants him to put it in the assigned place. He is a complete outsider here, and they seem to be doing everything they can to get him to turn around and go home. But he gets past them, to his daughter and ex-wife. Ex-wife is still needling him, and *she* wants him to put the gift in the assigned place. He refuses, and has his daughter (Maggie Grace) open the gift in front of him. Now, we expect this to be the greatest gift ever, because he has spent so much time and effort selecting it... but the great thing about TAKEN is that again and again it does the unexpected. A boom box - because she wants to be a singer. Janssen snipes that she wanted to be a singer years ago... but Grace gives him a big hug anyway... and then Berkeley comes in with his gift - a Thoroughbred horse! She goes crazy, runs to the horse... leaving Neeson’s gift on the ground. Heart breaker. Major heart breaker.

The most OTN scene in the film is the barbeque with Neeson’s ex-spy guys. It’s a huge exposition dump disguised as guy banter - but the banter isn’t funny enough to make it work. At the end of the night they ask Neeson if he’d like to do some security work with them - these ex-spies now guard rock stars for a living. Neeson has always said no, but says yes this time... and helps guard this Shakira-like singer at a concert. Before the concert, he tells the singer that his daughter wants to be a singer and does she have any advice... and she just *slams* him. Again, in the Hollywood version she might have given some advice or at least not been so brutal. After the concert, when they are hustling the singer off stage, someone opens a door and a bunch of fans charge at her. The rest of the guys control the flood of fans, while Neeson gets the singer to her waiting car... but someone is waiting in the dark with a knife and attacks. Another unexpected event - we thought this was all about the fans, not an attack on the singer with the fans as the diversion. Neeson is prepared, takes down the attacker, stomps him, and gets the singer to the car and the car the hell out of there... in almost one fluid move. This guy is a badass!

Now the bitchy singer thaws and gives Neeson a business card with all of her contact info, and says if his daughter really can sing, she’ll do everything she can for her. Neeson realizes this is something rich stepfather Berkeley can’t do for his daughter - the business card is his big chance to connect with her. He arranges to have lunch with her, no ex-wife to ruin everything... but when Grace shows up, so does Janssen. But no matter what his ex-wife says, it can’t beat the business card, right? Maybe it’s *good* that Janssen showed, he can kind of rub her nose in it... But before he can get to the business card, his daughter asks a favor - she wants to spend the summer in Paris with her friend, and because she’s under 18, needs Neeson’s signature on a permission slip. The summer Neeson was going to spend getting closer to his daughter? She’s going to be in Paris. The whole conversation turns to allowing his 17 year old daughter to go to another country - where she could get into all kinds of trouble. The business card - which is what we expected the scene to be about - is forgotten.

When Grace and her friend get to Paris, they split a cab with a cute guy... and Grace discovers that the relatives of her friend they were supposed to be staying with are on vacation for the summer - so it’s just two boy-crazy girls in a Paris apartment. While she’s on the phone to Neeson, admitting that there is no adult supervision - some guys break into the flat and grab her friend. It’s sudden and unexpected and the struggle knocks over half the furnishings. Neeson tells her to find a bedroom and hide under the bed, then talks her through what will probably happen - including that killer line from the trailer where he says “You will be taken”. Hey, we though ex-spy dad would have some sort of plan to prevent that from happening! Nope. It’s inevitable. But we get a clever bit, here - Neeson tells her to leave the phone under the bed and yell out a description of the guys who grab her so that he can hear. The guys come into the bedroom, do a search, and leave without finding her... we are sure she’s safe! Then - YANK - someone grabs her feet and pulls her from under the bed. She screams her description, one of the badguys grabs the phone, Neeson makes his threat... and the phone is *smashed*.

But Neeson has recorded the phone call, takes the recording to one of his ex-spy buddies for analysis. Now, when they introduced all of these guys, I was sure they would end up part of the movie later on... but they don’t. The guys were played by recognizable character actors, so you think they will come back later in the story, Nope, This is it. One of the guys uses voice print technology and finds out that these guys are from Albania and even the exact village, based on their accent. Neeson packs his bags and jets to Paris to kick some Albanian ass.

Oh, and there’s a great bit of unexpected plotting here - two *wealthy* American girls are kidnaped. When the cute guy they share the cab with drops them off, the girlfriend says they have the whole fifth floor of the building... and the cute guy notes the expensive luggage and clothes and everything else. So, when the girls are kidnaped, we immediately think there will be a call to Xander Berkeley with a ransom demand. But there is no call. After being lead to believe this will be about ransom, it’s not. It’s a “white slave” ring - kidnaping tourist girls, getting them hooked on drugs, forcing them to work as prostitutes. Not what we expected. After setting up how rich Berkeley is for the first third of the film, the story does something else. That’s the thing I liked most about this film - whenever you thought you knew what would happen next, they did something you’d never expect.

Plus, these nasty Albanians can turn a carefree American girl on vacation into a drugged out whore in 96 hours - which gives us a ticking clock.

We get a couple more fairly clever scenes - one where Neeson walks through the Paris flat while listening to the phone call recording and matching destruction to sound. This helps him find clues in the flat. He finds the bedroom his daughter hid in, finds the smashed cell phone... and pulls out the chip. Takes the chip to a prints digital photos in some shopping area, and clicks through all of the cell phone photos his daughter took - including one of the two girls taken by the cute guy - and Neeson finds a reflection of the cute guy, blows it up, prints it...

And starts up the ladder of bad guys until he gets his daughter back.

Every time you think he’s finally found her, he hasn’t. We keep coming to that end scene where he kicks down a door, kills a bunch of scumbags, and rescues her... only she isn’t there. She’s been sold to somebody or transferred or moved, and Neeson must start all over again. There are many more completely unexpected things: A scene where he begins bothering a streetwalker to flush out her Albanian pimp - you expect Neeson to kick the pimp’s ass and force him to give information.... but he just apologizes and leaves, after planing a bug on the pimp. A scene where he’s kicking ass in a make-shift whorehouse at a factory - blankets hung on clotheslines to create rooms - and searches each “room”... spotting his daughter’s jacket (set up in earlier scenes) on the floor near a girl with long brown hair (like his daughter’s) who has just taken a conga-line of factory workers. You steel yourself for the heartbreak when he turns the girl’s face so that he can see it... not his daughter. But a clue to her - the drugged out girl remembers a street name and the *distinctive* color of the door to the building where they got her hooked on heroin. There’s a *great* unexpected scene where Neeson is cornered and shoots a *completely innocent* person in order to escape - doesn’t kill the person, but this is someone you *like*. Completely unexpected and brutal.

The film may be a straight ahead revenge flick, like GET CARTER or POINT BLANK, where the protagonist kills his way up the ladder until he gets to the person ultimately responsible, but even though the story itself is linear the scenes within the story are not. Unexpected things happen, and *anything* can happen. Neeson doesn’t win some of the fights, bad things happen to innocent people, and we are often lead to believe one thing will happen in a scene and then the exact opposite happens.

This unpredictability makes many of the scenes seem like they were made up on the spot, but really the opposite is true. These things take planning. As a writer, you either have to know your genre inside out so that you know exactly what the audience expects to happen in any given scene - so that you can do something completely different... or you have to create the expectations in the audience by leading them down the wrong path. Here we are constantly lead astray - after building up how wealthy Xander Berkeley is and dropping all of these clues that the girls were kidnaped for ransom... that’s not the case at all! After creating the expectations that Neeson is going to kick everybody’s ass - he just walks away from the pimp like an idiot tourist. After setting up a relationship between Neeson and this innocent person, he shoots them! Besson and Kamen had to create these expectations in order to subvert them. They had to know all along that Neeson would shoot this person so that they could make it seem like that would be the last thing Neeson would ever do.

One of the things I thought was clever about TAKEN was that the girls go on vacation to Paris - so that this French film can actually be shot in France.

The problems with TAKEN: Look, Paul Greengrass is now on my hit list for ruining action films. You can either do quick cuts *or* use a handheld camera. Can’t do both - because when the camera isn’t locked down and moves around, it takes our eyes longer to “grip” the image. When you do quick cuts we have less time to “grip” the image. Use one or the other and our eyes can “grip” the image and see what is happening. Use both and we don’t have time to see what that shaking image is before we are on to the next shaking image and it all ends up kind of a blur. We can process the overall concept of the scene, but not the specifics. Things get lost in the scramble of pixels and the sequence uninvolving and less affective. There are lots of ragged action scenes in the film, and another one of those car chases that looked like it might have been exciting and I wish I had been able to actually see it.

The film was also drama-deprived. Okay, I like kick ass action movies, but I also like a little drama and character woven in. It’s as if, after spending much of Act 1 giving Neeson some good acting scenes, they just got rid of anything that required acting for the rest of the script. There were even some good juicy scenes that seemed to be set up for drama - when Neeson is caring for the drugged out girl and tells her he’s the father of a kidnaped girl, there *needed* to be a scene. Heck this drugged out girl has a father, too - she’s exactly the same as Neeson’s daughter! Why not make that into a scene? Why not hold back a smidgen of the Neeson-wasn’t-there-for-his-daughter and use it here? Why not turn the girl into more than just a clue to the next round of scumbags for Neeson to kill? And in several other places in the film, I would have given Neeson a chance to do some acting. There was more drama in the last Jean Claude Van Damme movie!

Also, the villains were cardboard cut outs waiting to get killed. Sort of central casting bad guys. This goes back to Hitchcock, the better the villain, the better the movie. In the first PIRATES movie Barbosa becomes more frightening when his motivation is revealed and we *understand it* - now it’s not just a bad guy doing bad things, he has a motivation that makes so much sense we know he can’t be deterred. Barbosa has too much at stake to be talked out of this or give up if it becomes too difficult - and that makes him more frightening that the cardboard cut out bad guys in this film. They needed to take the villains - even the Albanians - and give them a human moment where we understood their motivations and understood that they would rather die than give up the information about Neeson’s daughter. That makes the task *more* difficult and *more* dangerous. Good villains make good movies. Cardboard bad guys make crap action movies like this - hey, great to see a guy kick ass, but better if it’s not just action porn and I *feel* something.

Still, pretty good action porn, mostly due to the brutal and unexpected stuff and Neeson... and a non-Hollywood ending.

- Bill


Emily Blake said...

Ugh. We must have been watching a different movie. I thought the action scenes were the ONLY things that worked in Taken.

Dharmesh said...

When are you going to post your thoughts on The Dark Knight, Bill?

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