Sunday, December 26, 2010

Box-office Flops of 2010: Bad Timing or Just Plain Bad?

Quick: what do the following movies have in common?

Edge of Darkness
The Wolfman
The A Team
Repo Men
Robin Hood
Knight and Day
From Paris With Love
Prince of Persia: Sands of Time
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Give up?

They all flopped at the box office this year. And they flopped hard. In fact, these movies were the 10 biggest box-office flops of 2010.

In a year that saw two wars, a stubborn recession, high employment, increasing distrust in the government, and an overall negative attitude about the state of the union, is it any wonder that we wanted some lighthearted, I-don’t-wanna-think entertainment this year? Hollywood thought that’s what they were giving us—feel-good rom coms (Knight and Day), kick-ass shoot ‘em ups (The A Team, From Paris With Love), and far-out fantasies (Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Hollywood pumped these movies out, thinking they were exactly what we wanted…and then no one went to see them.

What gives?

This could be a stretch (or wishing thinking on my part), but is it possible that what we wanted this year wasn’t escapist entertainment, but reality entertainment? Were we really craving provocative documentaries, tales of hardship and daily struggles, and inspirational weepies? Are we finally ready for less fluff and more substance?

Movies, perhaps, like Winter’s Bone, an independent movie that takes an unflinching look at life in the Ozarks, in the form of a young girl forced to care for a mentally disturbed mother and two hungry siblings while hunting down her drug addict father and preventing the family home from going into foreclosure?

Or A Film Unfinished, a documentary about the deplorable conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II and the Nazi propaganda used to cinematically manipulate the situation?

Not exactly feel-good fare, but excellent films nonetheless, nominated for awards and receiving critical acclaims. Was our desire for more substance a factor in these films’ success?  

I’d like to think Americans are ready to face reality head on, and are tired of being pandered to. I want to believe they want to be challenged, are looking to think outside the box, and want movies to focus on life as they know it. Maybe it’s possible Americans want Hollywood to connect with them, to identify with them, be empathetic to their struggles.

I, for one, have always liked my movies to flirt with the dark side, expose the seedy underbelly of society, show life on the fringe. I shy away from fluff for the most part.

But I’m not so sure my fellow Americans want the same. Here’s how I know.

I recently joined a book club. The first book I was responsible for reading was Tracy Kidder’s “Strength in What Remains,” about a man who escapes war and genocide in his native Burundi in West Africa to seek the American dream in New York City. The book was full of violence and bloodshed and poverty and tales of homelessness and helplessness. It was a brave choice of book, especially given this time of year, when most people’s thoughts turn to Happy Holidays and visions of sugarplums are dancing in their heads.

It gave me hope that the staff of the bookstore would shy away from the typical lighthearted stuff most book clubs gravitate towards, and include gritty, provocative, and controversial reads. Maybe this book club would be different. Maybe the staff wouldn’t shy away from the horrors of the world, wouldn’t shelter us in a protective bubble, and embraces the world and all its imperfections. And if they felt that way about the books they read, certainly they liked their movies the same way.  

But I would be wrong.

“Don’t worry,” the book club leader said to us as our meeting wrapped up. “It’s rare that we pick a book as dark as this. We’ll be returning to more lighthearted fare for the future.”

All the ladies in the group let out a collective sigh of relief, and uttered such things as “Thank goodness for that,” and “I can’t believe this book was even chosen for discussion,” and “I hope next month’s pick is Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve been meaning to read that for months.”

Yes, as you might have guessed, most of the group hated “Strength in What Remains.”

Guess that goes to show that—no matter the form of entertainment—people really do just want to escape. Which would explain the top three box-office earners of the past year: Toy Story 3 ($415 million); Alice in Wonderland ($334 million); and Iron Man 2 ($312 million).

See the common thread there? Escapist entertainment if I’ve ever seen it. But also this: all three movies appealed to kids—and the kid in all of us.

Oh, and a third thing: they didn’t suck. Maybe that’s why we didn’t flock to theaters this year to see The Wolfman and Repo Men and MacGruber. Those movies, and the other big flops, were simply terrible.

Winter’s Bone and A Film Unfinished were dark and gritty, but excellent, which explains their success. Bad timing maybe, but appreciated by a minority of people who like to be challenged and forced to think. That was those movies’ saving grace.

Bad timing had nothing to do with any of the movie flops. It all came down to being bad.

So there you have it—the key to box office gold: make escapist movies that don’t suck. Unless a vampire is involved. Then we want the movie to suck.

(Which reminds me: I think my next post should be about the vampire craze that’s been sweeping the country for like, ever now. Seriously, the trend is getting old. Please go away.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chernobyl Gearing up to be the ‘Hot’ New Tourist Site of 2011

Sorry for the bad pun, but it’s to prove a point, really. Which is, do Ukrainian officials really think people will visit the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster?

I don’t know: Did the mayor of New York think people would visit Ground Zero, site of America’s worst terrorist attack?

The answer turned out to be yes, and people showed up in droves to view the wreckage and pay homage to the dead. And people are still showing up nine years later. (If you visit today, of course, you’ll see something more uplifting: construction of what will be a museum housing permanent exhibitions of stories and artifacts, and a memorial that will remember and honor the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11.)

For all the similarities you could draw between Ground Zero and Chernobyl—a preventable tragedy, thousands dead, thousands more forever altered—there is one striking difference: Ground Zero has been cleaned up and is safe for construction workers and visitors (who still view the site from behind barrier fencing), whereas the Chernobyl reactor that blew up is still leaking radiation.

You read that right: radiation is rife at Chernobyl. And Ukrainian officials want to turn it into a tourist attraction.

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the disaster

And not just any tourist attraction. A site where visitors will be able to walk around and see where, 24 years ago, a nuclear reactor exploded, spewing radiation over a huge part of northern Europe. Visitors will hear stories about the hundreds of thousands of people who were resettled from areas contaminated with radiation fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. They’ll hear about the health problems that still persist. They’ll see evacuees that, despite a government ban and risk of recontamination, have returned to their villages in the area of the plant. They’ll see the iron-and-concrete structure that was hastily built over the exploded reactor, a “shell” that is leaking radiation and is in threat of collapsing. Tourists might even bump into one of the 2,500 employees who still work at the now-closed nuclear plant, and work in shifts to minimize their risk of radiation exposure.

And visitors will be asked to follow a strict travel path (one that hasn’t been fully developed yet) and not stray from their tour group lest they want to be exposed to radiation themselves.

Look: I live ten minutes from Limerick nuclear power plant. I feel like can I weigh in on this subject, because the threat of nuclear fallout is a reality I live with every day.

The twin reactors at Limerick stick up into the sky like a beacon and are visible from every angle within a ten mile radius. The towers have become such a common site in the skyline that most residents don’t even think about them anymore. Even when they’re spewing smoke (visible from distances of up to 50 miles), because we know that means things are running smoothly and some fancy scientific thing is taking place to create energy for millions of homes. Even when, on the first Monday of the month at 2 p.m., the nuclear plant sounds its unmistakable siren, because we know that’s normal too—just the facility testing its emergency siren system.

And yes, from time to time, Limerick Generating Station has opened itself up to tours for specialty groups.

The Limerick Nuclear Power Plant

But here’s the thing: Tours of a well-guarded, professionally staffed, fully functional, safe nuclear power plant are one thing. Why not? Maybe we all would learn a thing or two. But to walk around a burned out shell of a site that’s leaking radiation?

I don’t know.

No, wait. I do know. It’s irresponsible. It’s unconscionable. And it could be a deadly liability.

The Emergency Situations Ministry, the Ukrainian governmental group wanting to offer tours of Chernobyl, claims the tours will be medically safe for visitors, and will educate Ukrainians and foreign visitors about the tragedy. Even the U.N. supports the plan, seeing it as an opportunity to tell a story, raise awareness about nuclear safety, and be an economic boon for the community.

All I can say is this: If Limerick blows its top, my husband and I plan on driving right into the line of fire, Thelma and Louise style, and going out in a blaze of glory. There’s no way we want to suffer with radiation fallout the way those poor Ukrainians did. I’d rather end my life than suffer for the rest of it.

So if there’s even a remote chance that I can get radiation poisoning from visiting Chernobyl, you won’t be catching me there anytime soon.

Then again, if the U.N. agrees with it and thinks it’s okay…

Sign me up. Sounds like it could be a real gas. (Ouch. I’m gonna catch a lot of shit for that one.)

Who’s up for a road trip? Show of hands?

Monday, December 6, 2010

Is It Time To Crown A New King of Pop?

Michael Jackson’s song “This Is It” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance, alongside Michael Buble, Adam Lambert, Bruno Mars and John Mayer. If the King of Pop wins on February 13, 2011, there will no doubt be a tearful acceptance speech from an appreciative family member. It’ll be reminiscent of the moment at the Oscars two years ago when Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight and his parents accepted on his behalf: a painful reminder that we are losing talented artists way too early.

And it got me thinking. Michael Jackson has been gone for a little more than a year. Is it time to crown a new King of Pop?

To fans and family members and artists influenced by Michael, the answer would probably be, “No way. Not ever.” But statisticians, the people who love tallying album sales and counting awards, might say, “Eh, we’ll see. There might be another artist in our lifetime capable of such accomplishments.”

And what accomplishments they are.

Over a nearly 40-year career, Michael Jackson has won just about every type of music award you can possibly think of (Grammies and Golden Globes and everything in between) and has been recognized by everyone from MTV to the Guinness Book of World Records to world leaders. Five of his solo albums are among the top-sellers of all time. He’s had 13 number one singles. He won 13 Grammies. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice. “Thriller” is the largest selling album in the history of the recording industry. He has sold an estimated 750 million records worldwide.

Not to mention that he is profoundly influential, having inspired subsequent generations of pop, soul, R&B and hip-hop artists.

So the bigger question might be: Is there another performer out there capable of all that?

Surely there are some performers well on their way to such stardom and artistic greatness. Artists like Usher, perhaps, who has released seven albums in 15 years. He’s had 13 consecutive Top 20 singles, seven of which were #1. He’s won 17 Billboard Music Awards, nine ASCAP awards, eight Soul Train Music Awards and five Grammies. He’s also an accomplished actor, record company owner, best-selling fragrance spokesman, and devoted mentor for youth leadership. Not too shabby for a 32-year-old. (He’s the first person to come to mind when I think about an heir to the King of Pop throne.)

But what about Jackson’s fellow nominees? Bruno Mars is considered a relative newbie on the scene, but dig deeper and you’ll find he’s no overnight success. Behind the scenes he was creating hit singles for some of today’s top talent, including Flo Rida and Travie McCoy. Bruno was barely out of high school then. Over the years, he’s leant his voice to top hits and produced hooks and has just released his own first solo album. He sings and writes and plays piano. Last week he learned he was nominated for seven Grammies. He’s just 25.

John Mayer’s guitar skills are no joke. He’s also a songwriter and music producer, as well as a philanthropist, supporting veterans’ healthcare issues. His first two studio albums went multi-platinum. He has several Grammies under his belt and has been nominated for four more this time around. He’s 33.

Michael Buble is only 35 but he’s already sold 25 million albums worldwide. This Canadian’s first album reached the top ten in Canada and the UK and soon enough he reached worldwide fame with the albums that followed. He acts and has won numerous music awards.

Adam Lambert found the stage before a singing career took hold. He starred in many European and U.S. theatre productions as a boy and teenager, after which time he met the people who would help him launch his recording career. This 28-year-old is most notably known as the runner-up on the 8th season of American Idol, but he’s won several awards, cementing him as someone to watch in the pop world.

The fact that the other four artists nominated alongside Jackson are 35 and under is nothing to shake a stick at. They’ve all accomplished so much in so short a time that it begs the question: Are any of these men (Usher included) capable enough of filling Michael Jackson’s shoes? Not yet, of course, but in time—with more training and more hits and more experience—any one of them might very well be handed the crown of King of Pop.

Well, except maybe John Mayer and Mars Bruno and Michael Buble. Because they don’t dance. Not that that’s a prerequisite. I’m just saying.