24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Valentine's Day

Searching for quality in the land of wolfmen and mall cops

February 12, 2010 |  5:05 pm

Last winter, amid the notoriously frozen tundra of the winter movie calendar, two movies became phenomena in ways that might have surprised even the people who made them.

Wo "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Taken" each topped $145 million in domestic box office to become among the highest-grossing films released in the January-February period. The only three figures in contemporary moviedom who've managed to earn more during these months are Will Smith ("Hitch"), Hannibal Lecter ("Hannibal") and Jesus ("Passion of the Christ"). "Blart" and "Taken," not insignificantly, also irked plenty of critics -- Liam  Neeson's vigilante antics eked out some, but not a lot of,  sympathy from more fan-ish reviewers to land a 57% Rotten Tomtaoes score. "Blart" wasn’t as lucky -- it managed just 37%. But lest one think 2009 was some kind of alignment-of-the-planets fluke, it wasn’t. This weekend could see two films that get almost as much love from the At the Movies set -- but still make something approaching Blart-level money.

"The Wolfman," which has earned just a 31% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is already drawing reviews Kevin James would feel at home with ("If you think the Wolfman is conflicted, that's nothing compared with the filmmakers ... the film unfolds in both predictable and problematic ways," Betsy Sharkey writes in the Los Angeles Times).

Yet even with what will surely be some weak word-of-mouth, the film could ride a strong Friday to a $35 million opening. (Barring a full-moon-like event, the film's total won't cross the $100-million mark.)

"Valentine's Day" is an even more egregious case.  The star-stew of a romantic comedy currently sits as the worst-reviewed movie of the year -- just a measly 14% of critics on Rotten Tomatoes. It's been so badly received that it actually makes "Percy Jackson & the Olympians," the third film opening wide this weekend, look like an Oscar candidate.

But bad reviews will be no impediment to the date-night business the film is poised to do, according to most box-office experts, including our own Ben Fritz. The film's opening could top the record romantic-comedy opening of "Sex and the City." And when all is said and done, the movie has a shot to top the $145 million threshold of "Blart" and "Taken.”

The widening gap between quality – er, critical assessment -- and box office is nothing new, even if it is a sign of the times. "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" made $400 million last summer despite getting just a 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But it's worth noting that while some summer franchises often are critically panned but commercially loved, that divergence is newer to winter. In this season, critics tend to pan the movies and audiences tend to stay away, at least in mega-size numbers. Yet slowly but surely, the second half of that equation is changing. Audiences like going to the multiplex even in these wintry months … even if the films they see offer little more than a slushy mess.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "The Wolfman." Credit: Universal Pictures

With Swift and Lautner, a valentine to stunt casting

February 10, 2010 |  7:32 pm

"He's Just Not That Into You" started it last year, and now "Valentine's Day" is upping the ante: Throw into one romantic comedy actors who appeal to as many constituencies as possible and watch the audience come out in droves.

Va At least that's the hope for "Valentine's Day," the Garry Marshall confection that takes actors from pretty much every age, creed and background and tosses them into one crock pot of a marketing casserole.

Latinos (George Lopez), blacks (Jamie Foxx), frat boys (Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher), older women (Patrick Dempsey), the "Hangover" crowd (Bradley Cooper) and demos heretofore not thought of (not to mention those who like seeing actual movie stars such as Anne Hathaway and Julia Roberts) all will find a face with which to identify in this ensemble story of love and loss (or just love and love)  set to open this weekend.

It's not so much that there's casting diversity in the film -- though from the sheer volume of names one wonders if studio execs were ticking boxes as much as scrutinizing sizzle reels -- but how that diversity is being flogged. If you live anywhere within radius of a major metropolitan city, you've seen the faces on the sides of every bus and billboard. Call it kitchen-sink marketing, or marketing as imagined by the U.S. Census Bureau. It's kind of cynical and, we have to admit, kind of brilliant. Throw as many faces at the wall as you can and some contingent, somewhere will come out to see them. ("Love, Actually," another ensemble piece and a film to which this movie has been compared, pulls of the vignette approach with a far more coherent and less gimmicky cast.)

But for all the groups that the "Valentine's Day" stars (presumably) bring in, the real prize is tween girls, a demographic that the film grabs with with the coupling of Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift (more on the latter below), whose appearance in the film is fleeting but whose demographic value is incalculable.

Continue reading »

Taylor Swift: future movie star?

February 10, 2010 |  5:15 pm

Swi Taylor Swift makes her film debut this weekend with the ensemble romantic comedy "Valentine's Day," playing a sweet, vacuous high-schooler. The 20-year-old is hardly the first musician of her generation (or any generation) to make the jump to features.

Swift's sort-of contemporary Carrie Underwood has announced that she will make her acting debut in "Soul Surfer," based on the true-life surfer Bethany Hamilton,  who lost her arm in a shark attack. (Underwood plays a church youth counselor.) And the list of stars who've tried it before is a long one. Barbara Streisand ("Funny Girl"), Dolly Parton ("9 to 5") Madonna ("Vision Quest") and Beyonce  ("Austin Powers in Goldmember") all made the jump to the big screen after establishing robust musical careers, not to mention the less successful segues like, ahem, Britney Spears'. (For a complete look at songstresses who remade themselves as thespians, check out the photo gallery below.)

Swift So how did Swift come to be involved?

Garry Marshall, the veteran filmmaker who directed "Valentine's Day," heard of her interest in a role, so he and his writers decided to come up with a story line for Swift. Taylor Lautner (whom Swift is reported to have briefly dated) also wanted to be in the film,  so Marshall had Swift's character fall for Lautner. (To come up with plot points, the director queried Lautner about his Minnesota upbringing. "What were you remembered for?" Marshall asked. Lautner was a hurdler, so that's what the director put in the film.)

Marshall admits he was nervous when he first met the tween pop idol. "I don't always know how to relate in the right way," says Marshall, who, at 75, is a mere 55 years old than Swift. 

But he did use some tricks that can help a director bond with talent. "I said, 'Let's start off on a good foot. My lucky number is 13 and so is yours. She said, ‘It is!' Suddenly we were pals forever. She has e-mail, everything with the number 13 in it. I showed up to direct her in a shirt with 13 on it.  I have to figure out a way to get along. I don't talk the musical terms, but she was wonderful."

-- Rachel Abramowitz

Photo: Taylor Swift. Credit:  Peter Kramer / Associated Press


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...




Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: