Why Wait?

Million Dollar Baby is easily one of the finest films of the year and the most likely winner of the ’04 Best Picture Oscar. Why then have Warner Bros. execs been keeping it hidden from most of the nation since it opened limited two weeks and two days ago?
Some people I’ve spoken to say they’re playing it smart, but I don’t know.

So far Baby has been showing in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Toronto only…and in precious few theatres at that. I’ve been telling friends around the country since I first saw it in late November that it’s the one to see, the emotional grabber with the art-film pedigree, etc.
But they can’t see it because they live in one of the hundreds of cities where it’s not playing — Danbury, Boston, Houston, Birmingham, Louisville, et. al.
The reason is that Warner Bros. marketing execs don’t really believe it will travel all that well with regular ticket buyers who’ve been prompted by the usual marketing efforts, so they’re waiting for the Academy nominations on 1.25 to nudge them into a state of receptivity.
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Moviegoers probably will be more interested in lining up after the expected happens, which would be nominations in most of the major categories– Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Clint Eastwood), Best Actress (Hillary Swank), Best Adapted Screenplay (Paul Haggis), Best Cinematography (Tom Stern), Best Musical Score (Eastwood) and so on.
But you’d think during a period when audiences flock to the plexes hoping to see a big year-end winner and, in one or two cases, dip into that communal emotional bath that goes with it, Warner Bros., having something fairly “big” and special on their hands, would want to supply this.
Eastwood’s boxing film is a critics darling, obviously, but it also seems to work with average audiences. (I’ve seen it with two paying audiences.) It has an unpretentious, un-fussed-with quality and appears to touch people where they live. Women especially.

I’ve seen it separately with two 40ish women who aren’t exactly jaded cinephiles, and they were both obviously moved by the film, especially by the father-daughter relationship thing between Eastwood and Swank.
On the other hand…
“Right now the awareness of the film is dicey,” says Movie City News columnist and box-office reporter Len Klady. “I have to assume that people probably like the picture so far, but they’re also probably a little uncomfortable about it.”
Klady then went on to mention a certain third-act plot element which this story won’t get into. But he also speculated that among those who haven’t seen Baby , they’ve at least come to know Eastwood over time and know his films don’t usually peddle escapism and tend to lean towards darker material, and some might say to themselves, `Let’s see something lighter….for now.”
This may account for the fact that Baby has so far been playing well but not spectacularly in New York, Los Angeles, et. al.
“There’s something that just comes out of the pavement,” says Klady. “Intuitive feelings that come out of the atmosphere, like microbes…very quickly the country knows what a film is.”
There is nothing unwelcome or sluggishly downer-esque about Million Dollar Baby . What it is, inescapably, is a film that knows itself and leaves you with something fully realized and affecting. The only thing tempering the Baby business so far, I’m assuming, is that same old reliable American aversion to any movie that doesn’t appear to be upbeat escapism. People will always go first for the fizzy high.

And so as the Xmas holidays approached, WB execs probably figured Baby wouldn’t do all that well against esteemed, high-quality competitors like Meet the Fockers, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, In Good Company, Phantom of the Opera, etc.
And they sensed on some pavement level that audiences probably wouldn’t, in the last analysis, embrace Million Dollar Baby like the critics have, and the third- act wallop wouldn’t be quite enough to sell it, and they just didn’t want to risk it.
So they hedged and said, “Screw it…let’s wait for word to build, for knowledge about the critics awards to get around, for the Oscar nominations.” Why bet on viewer awareness and risk getting kicked around?
A week from today (9.7) Warner Bros. will finally be expanding Million Dollar Baby into some other cities and territories…modestly. I don’t know where exactly (WB distrib execs were holidaying and not picking up the phone), but some people in other areas of the country will get to see it.
The bigger breaks, I gather, will be on 1.21 and 1.28, just before and just after the Oscar noms are announced.

Say What You Want

Million Dollar Baby is the third best film of ’04 according to the Movie City News chart of film critics choices, and it’s been tagged as the year’s finest by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, and third-best by Times critic Manohla Dargis.
But hold on…it’s also been called the second worst film of the year by James Rocchi, the resident film critic for Netflix .
It takes all sorts, variety is the spice of life, that’s what makes a ball game, etc. But we’re in a dead news cycle, I need to fill space and this is a mildly intriguing sidelight.
Rocchi’s Ten Worst Movies of the Year list had been finished as of December 16th, at which point he reported, “Dang! Just when you post the 10 Worst Films of the Year, they pull you back in. Clint Eastwood’s latest — Million Dollar Baby — is now in serious contention to take the crown of thorns from Alexander.”

As it turned out, this didn’t quite happen. I think Rocchi should have gone for it. Then he would have really made history.
A member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics, Rocchi also called The Hunting of the President, in my opinion a clearly assembled, seemingly thorough examination of the commonly acknowledged right-wing attack-dog efforts to get President Clinton during the ’90s, the 7th worst film of ’04.
Rocchi doesn’t lack for readers or listeners. His site bio reads, “In addition to providing movie reviews and recommendations for more than 2 million Netflix members, James has been a special guest on CNBC, CNN Headline News, MSNBC Scarborough Country and is a movie reviewer in 20 to 30 regional TV morning programs in top markets across the nation.”
Let’s see…hated The Hunting of the President, supplied guest commentary on the conservative-leaning Scarborough Country. Wait a minute, let’s not jump to conclusions.
Anybody can love or hate anything they want. I despised the Lord of the Rings movies and I’m in the extreme minority on that score, but I never called them the worst of anything. Peter Jackson, the trilogy’s auteur-creator, is a smart, impassioned and exacting filmmaker, and I really liked Heavenly Creatures. (That said, let me say again: beware of King Kong!)
Rocchi is fully entitled to hate the way the direction a film takes in its third act, or just despise things about a film that he considers manipulative or old-hat. I’m assuming, naturally, that he almost called Million Dollar Baby the worst film of ’04 because it got to him on a very primal level. It’s a startling call, but hey, James…knock yourself out.

Crumbling Plaster

My 15 year-old son Dylan is hanging with me over the holidays, and while I’ve been writing my columns he’s been spending a lot of time on the couch playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the latest in a series of Grand Theft Auto video games that first hit the market in `98 or ’99.
The San Andreas upgrade was released in October for use with PlayStation 2 game consoles. The players of the game control the actions of a deranged homicidal hip-hop asshole who runs around blasting the bejeezus out of anybody and anything, while enjoying protection (supplied by the game’s programmers) from being seriously harmed by enemies.
Since Dylan got the game a couple of months ago, he estimates that he’s “killed” about 5000 people, and that includes a lot of cops and regular-Joe bystanders. I’ve seen him run his victims down with cars he’s been driving, or machine-gun them to death, blow them up, beat them to death with clubs…any which way. And they’re always left lying in a pool of blood.

The game isn’t about achieving a goal or defeating your bad-ass enemies. A review I found of GTA: SA says that players “go on a series of missions to take back the streets.” Bullshit — it’s about running around and wasting anyone you feel like wasting.
A reviewer with Video Game Radio wrote that “most gamers will tell you that video games merely allow them to live out fantasies in the safety of their own homes. Whatever your opinion is on video-game violence, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is by far the most controversial video game on the market today.”
The main-character asshole — described by the creators as a 1990s California gang member who found out that his neighborhood had been taken over by another gang when he got out, blah, blah — can instantly change weapons. The game also allows him to fly planes (my favorite aspect).
Spray paint cans can be used to deface buildings or cover up graffiti left by rival gang within the “story,” but Dylan hasn’t once resorted to this. He’s my son and spray-painting isn’t part of his history…the guy’s got standards.
I understand what these games are about and I can feel their juice and why everyone likes playing them, but at the same time how can anyone take part in simulated murder hundreds or thousands of times — day after day, week after week — and not have their sensibilities affected on some level?
I’m not trying to get all fuddy-duddy and imply that Dylan or any similar Grand Theft Auto fan (teenaged, well-educated, middle-class, productive parents) is more susceptible to violent impulses in real life as a result of playing this game. Maybe he is, but I don’t think so.

But I think less intelligent kids without less-than-cultivated social habits or who’ve suffered from low-rent upbringings might be a bit more prone to sociopathic behavior due to this influence. Just a little bit, I’m saying.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board has given San Andreas an “M” (for mature) tag, recommending it for users aged 17 and older. The rating was given for “blood and gore, intense violence, strong language, strong sexual content and use of drugs,” according to the board’s website.
The ESRB “M” rating for the previous Grand Theft Auto game, called Vice City, was described as having only “violence” (the “intense” adjective wasn’t used) and didn’t mention “use of drugs.” Obviously the creators, Rock Star Games, are upping the ante.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is morally repulsive but undeniably cool from the POV of a player looking for fast, anything-goes action and steadily improving graphics. The question is how its popularity (and that of hundreds of similar games) may be affecting the moviegoing appetites of its fans, at least as far as their attention spans are concerned, or their ability to feel revulsion towards violence, which in real life is a deeply ugly thing in all its forms.


A much longer version of Michael Mann’s Heat is finally coming to DVD, although not in a unified form.
Warner Home Video’s two-disc Heat “special edition,” out on 2.22.05, will have 11 additional scenes that weren’t included in Mann’s 172-minute theatrical cut that came out in 1995. A WHV publicist tells me the extra footage amounts to 100 minutes, give or take, “which would total 272 minutes” — four hours and 32 minutes — “including the feature itself.”

This means that the alleged 257-minute running time of this DVD, posted last week by two websites — www.dvd.town.com and www.amazon.com — is incorrect.
When you press “play feature” on the new DVD, the 1995 theatrical version is what you’ll see. But if you’ve got video editing software and you’re clever and industrious, you’ll be able to construct a four-hour, 32-minute version for your own amusement.
DVD Town says that NBC aired a re-cut 188-minute Heat. (DVD Town’s exact wording calls it an “original pre-aired NBC version.”)
I don’t know if this is true, but if it happened it means Mann was obviously willing to re-cut his film to meet a commercial requirement. Why, then, didn’t he re-cut Heat and make it into a 272-minute extravaganza for the DVD? Obviously because he feels the 172 minute theatrical cut is the best, but deranged people like me would love to wallow in a much longer cut for the hell of it.
Disc #1 of the new version will offer the original film plus Mann’s optional commentary.
Disc #2 will offer five making-of documentaries:
(1) “Return to the Scene of the Crime,” with location manager Janice Polley and associate producer Gusmano Cesaretti visiting the real life L.A. locations used in the film;

(2) “Pacino and De Niro: The Conversation,” in which Mann and others recall the shooting of the showdown scene between Robert De Niro’s Neal McCauley and Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna at Kate Mantellini’s, a restaurant in Beverly Hills;
(3) “The Making of Heat: True Crime,” with Mann and Chuck Adamson, the film’s technical advisor who was also the real life inspiration for Hanna, discussing the Chicago crime scene and the events surrounding the real McCauley (whom Adamson took down in the late `60s) that inspired the film;
(4) “The Making of Heat: Crime Stories,” with Mann and others reviewing the 20-year origin of the script, the film’s genesis, and the complexity of the characters portrayed on screen; and…
(5) “The Making of Heat: Into the Fire,” with Mann and his cast and crew discussing training for their roles, filming in LA, shooting the climatic downtown heist, and the film’s post production.

Heaven Disputes

“However you feel about US involvement right now in Iraq, the Crusades are far more complicated than you make them out to be. And not terribly analogous to today’s perilous reality.
“For example, the population of what was known as the `Holy Land’ during the 11th and 12th centuries was, at least until jihad did its nasty work, mainly Christian. (But then so many liberals seem to forget the plight of Christian Arabs, both in the past and now.)
“Although from about the 9th century on there were Arab tribes in the area of Jerusalem, to which they’d wandered from the Arabian peninsula in search of better living conditions, they in no way constituted an ethnic majority when Godfroi de Bouillon and his companions recaptured Jerusalem from its Muslim occupiers in 1099.
“The final spur to the decision in the West to launch the Crusades, incidentally, was the Byzantine defeat at the (not terribly well-known) battle of Manzikert in 1076, although it took some five years for news of this battle to reach Rome and another ten or so for its import to really sink in, which thus opened up the Holy Land to Muslim hegemony. And to oppression, I’ll add.

“Despite what many liberals also seem to believe, the period of Muslim rule immediately before the Crusaders landed in the Holy Land was a cruel one for Christians and Jews alike. Have you never heard the terms `dhimmi’ and `dhimmitude,’ which refer both to non-Muslims in a Muslim land and to the Koranically dictated way to treat them, including extra taxation?
“At least get hold of Richard Fletcher’s `Moorish Spain’ (it’s a short book) and read it for the way Christians were treated under that supposedly mild group of invaders; Fletcher himself admits he wrote it to dispel the myths concerning how non-Muslims fared during medieval times under Muslim rule.
“Also, too, Saladin happens to have been a Kurd. Thus a member of, today, an oppressed minority, one in fact oppressed by its fellow Muslims. Got that? There is an irony there that is biting, and I wonder if Scott will even mention it in his upcoming movie.
“One of the best books out there on the complicated issue of what the Crusaders were actually like is Zoe Oldenbourg’s `The Crusades.’ I think that if you even only page idly through it, you’ll learn that the image of them as racist butchers has little to do with reality. Perhaps, too, you’ll no longer quite see Saladin as the absolute paragon of chivalry that many writers still portray him to be. I don’t know if Scott will similarly have done his homework, but you still can.
“Something else that might even amuse you is that the bulk of Crusaders were, in fact, French (although it wasn’t referred to as `France’ at that time in the sense it is today). There is a train of thought among historians that holds that France from 1940 on owes its destiny to the simple truth that for the preceding 600 years the country had been bled white by a succession of (in general) losing wars, with WWI thus only constituting the final such catastrophe.

“This way of thinking holds that since, say, 1100, it’s just been one long slide downwards for France, culminating in the truly rapid and shameful way the better-armed and more numerous French forces were defeated by the German Army in 1940. At the same time, of course, perhaps because so many of them `stayed home’ during the 12th century, England rose as a world power and, for about a hundred years, even occupied large chunks of France.
“Really, Jeffrey, you’re a fine film critic in my opinion, and you’re especially great at the visceral reaction stuff, but you’d be even better if your writing indicated some familiarity with history.” — Richard Szathmary
Wells to Szathmary: “The general theme of European Anglos (French, British) invading the Middle East and trying to restore Christian culture and Christian dominance in the Holy Land (whatever the history of Christian vs. Muslim clashes back then) carries inescapable parallels for Anglo-American forces today trying to implement/impose a Western-style democracy in Iraq in the wake of a takeover, etc.
“In a basic sense, I mean….without getting into all the jejune, finger-up-the-rectum historical mucky-muck.
“Your knowledge of Crusades history is more vast and scholarly than mine, but c’mon…. the basic bones of the two situations are obviously similar enough for a casual viewer of Kingdom of Heaven to say, “Aha, yes…of course. There are echoes in this situation.”
“You seem to be saying not only that the leaders of Muslim culture back then were discriminatory and ugly towards their lessers, but that there’s something inherently brutal and oppressive about Muslim culture that refuses to tolerate the culture of anyone or anything that isn’t Muslim. They’re purist fuckheads, in other words, just like the Jihadists are today…completely dedicated to the conquering and wiping out of impure non-Muslims around them. In a phrase, Natural Born Tyrants.
“So why don’t we just launch a U.S. Crusade today and just wipe ’em all out….every last one of them….man, woman and child? Okay, I’m kidding…but given your belief that Muslims and their brethren are really venal and bad news down to the bone, what’s the remedy?”

Szathmary back to Wells: I think you could have a fine, Oxford Union-style debate on the topic of `Resolved: That Islam Is Incompatible With Democracy.’ Just as there was a fine symposium on whether or no Islam is compatible with feminism this very morning at www.frontpagemagazine.com.
“As to what the answer would then be, I honestly don’t know. But the truth also is, neither of us can truly name a country with an Islamic majority that also is constituted as a democracy. Nor can either of us locate one in the past. That does not mean I’m espousing a white man’s burden” theory of history, either. Nobody (well, not too many of us, certainly not me) wants to wipe out all these radical Islamist motherfuckers (see, now you’ve got me lapsing into profanity!), but it’d be nice in your work, which I generally admire a great deal, to see some occasional acknowledgement that many of those motherfuckers do in fact want to wipe us out. Completely. Along with the Jews, of course.
“Forget al-Jazeera television. Look up some stuff about the al-Manar network some time if you want a real eye opener.
“And I’m sorry — well, no, I’m not really sorry, it’s just a figure of speech — but I think you have a greater responsibility to the yahoos out there, just as many of whom now seem to be disgruntled Democratic voters as Republicans (from which, even I’ll admit, the ranks are usually filled), to be more sensitive to history. More attentive to accuracy. This in turn might even contribute to some eventual good coming out of this debate down the line.
“Yes, it’s fun to go with your gut, and I admire that in your criticism, but temper it just a bit sometimes with a nod to fact.”


There’s an article on the legacy of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the 12.31 issue of the L.A. Weekly.
One piece of slightly-dated news in the piece, written by by Michael Hoinski, is that Kesey’s son, Zane, has assembled a 55-minute documentary about the adventures of the Pranksters on their 1964 cross-country tour on their day-glo bus. The doc, available on www.key-z.com, is purchasable for $25. (Actually, there’s a couple of other videos about the tour, plus one or two others about Kesey.)
Coincidentally, a reader (as well as HE’s volunteer editor) Mark Griffey wrote me the following just three days ago:

“Being interested in the film, I found a website called http://www.key-z.com/video. html that seems to be run by Ken Kesey’s son, Zane. Before he died in 2001, Kesey finally finished the Merry Prankster movie (45 hours of footage were shot). Given Kesey’s legacy and all, I was surprised to find that the guys who run the site won’t sell it to video stores. The only way to get it is to buy it from them on VHS for $25. Where’s the brotherly love?
“On top of this, the guys who run the site are currently bidding on the one copy that is up on Ebay. They don’t want anyone to get it unless they buy it from them! It’s crazy. Because to me, this doc seems to be a very important artifact.
“Kesey, Cassady and the Pranksters single-handedly started the entire psychedelic-hippie craze way back in 1964, long before Sgt. Pepper and all that shit. It’s like having a video of Newton getting hit in the head with the apple.
“Of course, the video is purportedly out-of-focus and a big mess, although I haven’t even seen it, but I just think it’s all very interesting. The Pranksters thought the movie would change the world, and now that it’s finally being released 40 years later, it’s practically a secret” — Mark Griffey.
Wells to Griffey: You’d think Zane would at least make a DVD version. You know, like…join the ’90s?