Archive for category Nostalgia

The Case of the Missing Box Office


Escaping from his empty life, traveling salesman Todd Woods (Paul Giamatti –L) discovers the joys of karaoke singing and a new friend in ex-con and soulful singer Reggie Kane (Andre Braugher –R) ©2000 “Duets” Hollywood Pictures

I like movies with heart. “Duets” is a movie with a big heart that nobody went to see.  Well, almost nobody.  Despite an intelligent, one-of-a-kind script and a star-studded cast, “Duets” tallied a mere 4.73 million dollars in domestic box office sales.* In terms of Hollywood studio economics this paltry sum is tantamount to a financial implosion.

“Duets” is (mostly) a feel-good road movie about people following their hearts and discovering who they are. I don’t see any harm in a story like that, particularly if you can add a few new twists and keep  folks smiling.  I thought “Duets” did both, but a lot of people disagreed.

I can find only two explanations why “Duets,” a movie I liked, was so universally overlooked by the movie-going public. Explanation 1: I have very bad taste. Explanation 2: An overwhelming number of negative reviews by movie critics cut off the hand that feeds the box office.

According to Metacritic® (www.metacritic.com) a sample of 29 professional movie critics gave “Duets” an average rating of 40 % out of 100. In contrast, a sample of twelve “Users” (people) gave the movie a rating of 8.8 points out of 10. (I realize this is a small sampling of “Users,” but let’s not forget that not many people saw this movie.)

According to this compact study then, “Duets” is a predominantly people friendly movie with an allergy to movie critics.

Here are a few typical movie critic reviews:

“Miserable as it crawls for two eternal hours towards being “life affirming.” Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner

“Simply creaks with contrivance—particularly in its overwrought finale.” Curtis Morgan, Miami Herald

“A leaden piece of whimsy that looks for profound life lessons among a group of karaoke bar aficionados.” Steve Daly, Entertainment Weekly

To be fair, some critics praised “Duets, as evidenced by these reviews:

“A highly likable movie.” M.V. Moorhead, Dallas Observer.

“Appealing, and ultimately moving.” Bob Graham, San Francisco Chronicle.

Gwyneth Paltrow (L) stars as Liv, an innocent Las Vegas showgirl in search of a connection to a lone wolf karaoke hustler (Huey Lewis–R) ©2000 “Duets” Hollywood Pictures

Now let’s hear from a few movie-goers:

“Her name was Lola. She was a show girl…dah de dah de dah. This movie was fun interesting and catchy. What is better?” James R.

“This movie is engaging, the story unfolds around the music, and Paul Giamatti is great. Apart some predictable things typical nowadays in American movies (family values, etc.), this movie is fun.” Pablo E.

“I loved it. Movie critics suck.” Stephanie R.

“The karaoke scenes were great…the film got me.” John O.

“Bette Davis Eyes…I like this song! Especially when Gwyneth Paltrow sang it.” Jiae K.  (I agree with you, Jiae. Paltrow sings the song like a sultry angel in her own voice–no dubbing.)

It’s interesting to note the difference between the critical reviews and the “User” reviews.  Critics, for the most part, write about the movie from a purely intellectual and artistic point of view. Believe it or not, I feel strongly this point of view does the movie-going public a disservice. For a more detailed explanation of what I mean by this, please read my earlier post, “Do Movie Critics Have a Heart?”

The people who commented on “Duets” experienced the movie in a completely different way than the critics. They connected with the movie emotionally.  They had a good time. People primarily go to the movies to be entertained. I believe this is a fact most movie critics tend to forget.

Here is my own somewhat extended review of the movie.

The script weaves the stories of three sets of people into a road movie unified by the common thread of karaoke. I give the screenwriter, John Byrum, credit for coming up with this unique concept. Before watching the movie, I never knew karaoke bars existed, and people competed in karaoke competitions for cash prizes. I discovered an entire karaoke subculture and its attendant technology. One of the things a good movie will do is open a door to a world you’ve never experienced before. For me, Duets succeeded admirably in this regard.

Down on his luck cabbie Billy Hannon(Scott Speedman–L) comes to the rescue of wannabe singing star Suzi Loomis (Maria Bello–R) ©2000 “Duets” Hollywood Pictures

Good music of any kind never fails to stir the human soul. This comes through in the “User review” excerpts. I found the music and the surprising singing talent of the “A” list actors showcased in “Duets” both refreshing and moving. I am astonished that movie critics, in large part, failed to respond to the musical dimension of “Duets.”

“Hard to take stone-cold sober,” writes critic Jack Matthews of the New York Daily Times.

Instead of asking, “Do movie critics have are heart,” I wonder if it might be more appropriate to ask, “Do movie critics have a heart beat?”

What about the acting? Well, Huey Lewis is definitely a better singer than actor. But I thought he basically got the job done in his role as a karaoke hustler and recalcitrant father. I have some questions about the choices Gwyneth Paltrow made in playing her role as Lewis’ long-lost daughter. I think she was going for innocent, but I didn’t feel it worked.  I’d say this was the one major flaw in the film. I thought the other stars, Giamatti, Braugher, andMaria Bello all brought “A list” luster and ingenuity to their roles.

I found the three stories in the movie appealing, and yes, even insightful, some more than others. I enjoy movies that have the unmitigated gall (according to critics) to explore questions like “What the hell am I doing here?” or “What does it take to be a good person?”

I believe the emotional center of the movie revolves around the disillusioned-with-the American-Dream character of Paul Giamatti playing opposite Andre Braugher, an ex-con. Braugher (Life on the Street) brings his customary moral compass and dignity to the role, plus a singing voice you would not believe he commands if you had not heard it yourself. This can also be said for Gwyneth Paltrow, and to a slightly lesser degree, Paul Giamatti and Maria Bello.

I connected with “Duets” emotionally. Like John O said, “…this movie got me.”

I’ll close by saying it’s very hard to make a compelling, engaging movie that switches back and forth between three different stories.Yet here I am, twelve years later, still thinking about “Duets.” Am I smart or senile to like this movie? Why did it fail at the box office?” Did “Duets” make a comeback in movie rental receipts?

If you have the answers to any of these questions, I’d love to hear from you.

*September 17th to October 29, 2000. Source: Wolfram Alpha Computational Knowledge engine (www.wolframalpha.com)

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The Parable of the Pet Turtle


Image Source: Conduit.com

This is a childhood memory that keeps surfacing. I’m writing about it to better understand what’s happening, and because I suspect there is a point to the story worth sharing.

My mother took me to the circus every year as a child. One year, I asked for a pet turtle instead of the chameleon I usually begged to take home as a souvenir.  It occurs to me that I may have chosen the turtle because I did not want to go through the trauma of the chameleon dying for one reason or another within two weeks of bringing it home. I watched my little turtle walk in circles around the plastic gulley of his cage for a few weeks.  Occasionally, he would climb the ramp to the tiny plastic island in the center of his domain to bask under a green, plastic tree.

After a few weeks of watching the turtle walk around, feeding him daily, and occasionally taking him out to play on the cork floor of my room, I grew bored with the little fellow.  I think my waning interest was the result of the turtle’s boredom rubbing off on me.  I can’t imagine he found his life interesting, trudging around in a small plastic tray day after day, with nothing to look forward to besides a few grains of dried turtle food.

Then I did something unusual.  I decided to set the turtle free.

I have no idea why I came to this decision. It might have been out of admiration.  The turtle refused to die, unlike my pet chameleons. Looking back on it now, it is likely the little guy had some heroic qualities, or was born with his sun in Jupiter.

I took the little turtle to a favorite play spot; a stone bridge overlooking a pond tucked away in a corner of my neighborhood. Here, I let the turtle swim out of my hands, hoping the little guy’s chances for survival in the wild were better than dying of boredom from circling a plastic dish endlessly in my room.

Image Source: Deviantart.com/Jazzy Kid

Six months later, while playing near the brook, I spotted the turtle sunning himself on a rock.  I knew circus turtles came from some far-away place. They didn’t look like the other wild turtles living around the brook-pond in my neighborhood. And this guy had the distinctive markings on his chest characteristic of circus turtles.  This turtle had to be the little guy I let go only he wasn’t little any more.  He had grown at least four or five inches in diameter and his shell had turned up at the edges due to this growth spurt.

My little circus turtle had flourished in the wild. I’d like to say he looked happy, but I really can’t remember, and it’s probably hard to tell what turtles are feeling under any circumstances.  But my turtle had obviously survived and prospered.  It’s a fair bet his life was more interesting than the dreary one he led in captivity.

Why am I writing this? Perhaps to understand this recurring memory is my soul speaking to me in a parable. My soul is imploring me to get out of my plastic turtle cage, to explore, to grow, to get out of my little rut.

Human nature tends to resist the whispers of the soul, despite my increasingly desperate attempts to listen. (I recently purchased a rocket belt on e-bay to overcome the effects of psychological gravity.*)

Actually, this blog helps me to climb out of my turtle cage.

So, thanks for being there. Thanks for reading.

 *The rocket belt didn’t work. I had to return it.

Image Source: Wag.com

 

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Sunday Nights With Shep


Jean Shepherd in WOR studio

Jean Shepherd in WOR studio (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his prime, Jean Shepherd hypnotized audiences for hours with stories about bumper stickers, TV commercials, Green Stamps, and the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  Like most great discoveries, I found Jean Shepherd purely by accident.  Sunday nights presented a precarious dilemma until Jean came along.  I didn’t want to close my eyes because the next thing you knew, the sun would be pinching my cheek.  It would be Monday morning, the beginning of another week of Junior High School.

My primary goal, therefore, centered upon pushing Monday morning as far into Sunday night as my sleep-deprived brain permitted.  My pre-Jean Shepherd solution to the Sunday night dilemma involved listening to Rock and Roll music on a radio underneath the covers.  One night, while switching from one Rock and Roll station to another, I found “Shep.”

The experts at the time might have called it “experimental radio.”  Whatever it was, I had never heard anything like the smooth jazz overlaid by that voice, the one that put an arm around my shoulder and whispered, “c’mon pal, I got some cool places to take you to.”

When I first tripped over the threshold of this new world, the silky voice in the night was talking about cigarette coupons.  It told a story about two friends who “made the same dough,” yet one of them had a new TV, and a boat, and a Ford Mustang, and a vacation home in the country—all purchased with cigarette coupons.  It soon became clear to the other sad sack that he was an idiot not to smoke “Wonkies,” the brand with the coupons, the kind his buddy smoked.  Of course the poor slob who smoked the Wonkies was dying of cancer, but it didn’t matter, because he had been smart enough to get the boat, and the car and the vacation home for free.  He had enjoyed a lifetime of smoking Wonkies, and now his family could use the boat and the other goodies after he died.

The music swelled a bit louder.  Now the voice talked about life on other planets.  Did the inhabitants have better bathrooms than ours?  Did the people have jobs, or could they just go to the bank and ask the teller for as much money as they needed to feed and clothe their families, with enough left over to go to an amusement park or take a quick vacation on another planet.  Everyone had to be on the honor system, or there wouldn’t be enough money to go around.  But these were aliens, after all, not human beings, so there would probably be no problem.

The voice kept talking.  It swept me away.  I lay there listening to my radio.  I felt like a five-year-old kid attending the circus for the first time with his Dad.  The world outside was crazy as hell, but I had it made in the shade, hypnotized by another one of Jean Shepherd’s stories.  Monday morning had disappeared over the horizon—miles, and miles, and miles down the road.

1950’s Radio. Image Source: http://www.radiomuseum.org

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Morton and the Horses


A Thoroughbred Race Horse in Full Stride

I remember the day my father asked me to become a partner in the stable.  He was sitting behind his desk in the temporary office space we rented then, dressed in a camel colored sport coat and checkered cotton sport shirt.  He looked straight at me with his bright, keen eyes and proceeded to make an offer that took me back to my secret weekend excursions in high school with my best friend, Danny. We were seventeen, a year too young to pass through the gates of any gambling establishment.  That didn’t stop us.  Danny and I were tall enough to look the part.  On Saturdays, we drove to the “flats” at Monmouth Park on the Jersey shore and the “trotters” at Roosevelt Field in Long Island at night.  We would bet two dollars a race and have the time of our lives.

My father, B. Morton Gittlin, was an unpredictable genius.  At sixty-one, after selling a wallpaper manufacturing and distribution business he had built from a small company into a national market leader, he began purchasing thoroughbred horses.  Completely in character, he shocked me with his offer to become a partner in a racing partnership he intended to name “Three G Stable,” assuming I agreed to become the third “G.”

I never suspected my father had an interest in thoroughbred racing.  We used to play a lot of golf together on the weekends when I was growing up.  I cannot fathom how or when he found the time to sneak away to the track with my mother.  He certainly would never have gone to the racetrack during the week.  He was too disciplined and focused on building businesses into powerhouse companies to fritter away time during working hours.  I imagine he didn’t share his secret passion for the horses with me when I was a minor because it involved gambling.

My own secret interest in the horses took a long break after high school.  Danny, my dear friend and co-conspirator, attended a different college than I and we grew apart.  I was eager to move on with my life and put childish interests behind me.  Thirty years flew by filled with adult activities—marriage, a family, and a career in marketing next to my father in the family business.

I accepted Morton’s offer to join Three G Stable as a full partner.  It was an entity created out of my father’s love for us as well as his love for the sport of kings.  The stable gave us something to keep us together and have fun with after we sold the wallpaper business.

There is nothing more exciting than seeing a horse you own pounding down the stretch in the lead.  My parents and I were fortunate to experience the exhilarating feeling of victory often in the twenty years the Three G Stable was in operation.  We owned and enjoyed a number of remarkable, stakes-winning horses.  One of them reminded me of my father.  His name was “Storm Predictions.”

The Excitement of Horse Racing

We acquired Storm Predictions by claiming him out of a race as a two-year old.  Many of the more experienced owners and trainers at Calder Race Course laughed behind my father’s back for claiming Storm Predictions.  Although the young horse was winning races, it was common knowledge he had some problems.  The breeder couldn’t sell “Stormy” at the two-year-old-in training auctions because he had what the veterinarians called “sawdust,” or bone particles in one knee.  This is an ominous condition for most horses, indicating a tendency towards bone and joint injuries.  My father didn’t care.  He saw in Storm Predictions the rare courage and talent of a potential champion.  The other owners and trainers saw a horse with a limited future.

As a three-year old, Storm Predictions won the Palm Beach Stakes on the grass at Gulfstream Park competing against the best horses on the East Coast.  Then, our gutsy gelding won the Inaugural Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby, a race for three-year olds on the Kentucky Derby trail.  Ridden by an unheralded journeyman jockey, Storm Predictions won with a flourish of speed at the top of the stretch, upsetting the heavy favorite in the race.

As a four-year old, “Stormy” won the Americana Handicap on the turf at Calder, as well as a number of “overnight” stakes and allowance races.  The gelding banked close to $400,000 in purse money during his racing career.  The horse cracked bones in his shins and suffered from joint aches and muscle pains of all sorts.  Nothing stopped him.  We just gave him long rests when necessary.  Storm Predictions always came back running hard and winning.  We gave Storm Predictions away to a caring farm owner when his racing days were over.  The gelding lived a long and useful life after his years at the track as a pleasure riding horse.

My father, like Storm Predictions, was no stranger to adversity.  After clearing the inevitable hurdles of a successful business career, he endured many physical setbacks in retirement, including a hip replacement, throat cancer, and emphysema.  Nothing stopped him.  He just kept enthusiastically pursuing his interests and enjoying life to the fullest, until the effects of exposure to asbestos as a boy caught up with him at age eighty-three.  Even then, he didn’t want to give up.  On the last day of his life, lying in a hospital bed, his body whittled down to skin and bone by Mesothelioma, my father threw off his covers and announced he intended to walk to the bathroom unattended.   We practically had to hold Morton down to spare him further pain and embarrassment.

I still dream of my father and the horses.  We call him “Morton” now, instead of Dad, or Pop, or my husband, or my father-in-law.   We call him by name because he was such a unique individual.  Anyone who knew my father well knows what I’m talking about.  Morton has been gone five years now, and I miss him terribly.  We sold all of our horses and disbanded the stable shortly before my father’s death.  The world of thoroughbred racing, like my father, has moved on.  Hialeah Park, once a haven for fabulous Flamingos and the finest thoroughbred racing in the East during the winter, is now a relic that hosts a brief quarter horse meeting. Gulfstream Park, another south Florida track, was razed and rebuilt into an enormous shopping center and gambling parlor.  Gone are the fan friendly grounds where patrons spent the day with family members in a country fair atmosphere.

I remember taking my five-year old daughter to the petting zoo and putting her on the backs of Shetland ponies for rides at the old park.  The spacious, open-air grandstands and box seats where fans used to bet, eat, drink, and watch the races all day long, are now an unfriendly complex of cramped, concrete buildings.

Thankfully, I still have my memories.  I remember Morton and the horses.  I remember the chain of love known as Three G Stable that linked me together with my parents, wife, and young daughter, in those glorious, fun-filled days gone by.

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