Posts Tagged actors

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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A Man of Passion


Chaz Mena is a man of passion. Whether it is creating roles for the stage and screen or spending time with family and friends, there is nothing this forty-one year old, Cuban-American actor does half way.

Chaz was born and raised in Miami, Florida where his earliest memories included scenes of his parents and grandparents telling each other stories of daily life in their long lost homeland of Cuba. Today, the population of South Florida is predominantly Spanish speaking. A large segment of the Hispanic population is Cuban-American. This is the exact opposite of the situation in the early Sixties. At the time, the first waves of Cuban exiles were literally lost in America. Chaz remembers “coming alive” when listening to the colorful stories his family members acted out on the front porch of their two story home in “Little Havana.” In hindsight, Mena realizes that telling these stories in a theatrical style enabled his family members to reconnect with their history and culture. These childhood experiences and an innate drive to tell a story that creates a shared experience have made Chaz Mena the man he is today.

After completing an MFA in Drama at Carnegie Mellon University, Mena arrived back in Miami with eighty thousand dollars in debts from his undergraduate and graduate studies. Even worse, he didn’t have a single lead or personal contact that might lead to gainful employment. It took a full week of sleeping in bed and the encouragement of wife, Ileana, before Mena was able to face the situation. He had been brought up to be a man of action rather than words. This led him to bravely pursue his childhood dream of becoming an actor without worrying about the consequences. Now, the first of many gut-wrenching reality checks Chaz Mena would have to learn to deal with waited unannounced on his doorstep.

By working odd jobs, Mena scraped together a nest egg of three thousand dollars. He set sail for New York City to establish himself as a legitimate, working actor. Chaz leased an apartment and began searching for an agent and acting roles. A few months later, Mena was penniless. All he had to show for his earnest efforts was a case of walking pneumonia. Then, serendipity or something akin to Divine Intervention changed Mena’s fortunes. While auditioning for a stage role, Chaz met the manager of the Spanish Repertoire Theater. The manager, whose name was Gilberto, recognized Mena’s family name. It turned out Gilberto had gone to college with Chaz’s father. He liked the father and enjoyed having his son, who bore a striking resemblance to Gilberto’s old college mate, around. “It made him feel young again,” Mena explains. So Chaz became a regular member of the theater company, which gave him the opportunity to play as many as six roles at a time in classical and contemporary Spanish speaking plays written by Spanish playwrights.

 

The Spanish Repertoire Theater was the vehicle that launched Mena’s career. He began landing roles on TV and in Independent films. Mena was now living his dream as a respected and well-reviewed New York actor. Yet something was still missing.

Mena says he felt like “a fisherman constantly casting his line for roles with no real anchor. “ It isn’t hard to understand this statement since most actors live from role to role in their working life. One night, as Chaz was lamenting about the situation to his best friend Juan Carlos, something amazing happened. Instead of commiserating with Mena, Juan Carlos came up with an inspired idea. He knew Chaz had been, from early boyhood, a fan and avid reader of the work of Jose Marti, a 19th century Cuban Poet, Humanist, and Revolutionary. Juan Carlos suggested that Chaz write a one man play about Marti and act the role of the man whose ideas were instrumental in helping Cuba win independence from Spanish colonization.

 

Chaz’s response to his friend’s idea might have been, “Are you kidding?” if not for the fact that Juan Carlos was a member of the Board of Directors of the Florida Humanities Council. All Chaz needed was his resume, some head shots, and of course, the play, Juan Carlos explained. He chose to ignore the fact that Chaz had never written anything for the stage or screen before in his life. Nevertheless, the next morning, Mena woke up with the first sentence of the play in his head: “Jose is still with us.”

Nowadays, between stage and screen roles, Mena travels to colleges and universities to enact the one man show with the sponsorship of the Florida Humanities council. As part of the presentation, audience members can ask questions and hear a carefully researched answer from the actor who has brought a great historical figure and his ideas to life. Getting into character, Mena expresses a “Martiano” idea: “That which is beautiful is moral. That which is moral is beautiful.”

If you are an educator and would like to invite Jose Marti to your school, please contact Chaz through his web site http://www.chazmena.com/.

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