Friday, September 29, 2017

Sounds of Cinema October Programming 2017

October is just about here and that means it’s time for a month of Halloween-related programming on Sounds of Cinema. Each episode this month will take a look at a particular theme or set of films and feature music to match. Here is a preview of what’s to come:

October 1: Suspiria and Eraserhead Retrospective 
This episode will take a look back at two pictures from 1977 on their fortieth anniversary: Dario Argento's Suspiria and David Lynch's Eraserhead. The show will include interviews with Donald May Jr., President of Synapse Films, and Kenneth George Godwin, author of The David Lynch Files.

October 8: Feminist Horror 
The horror genre has a bad rap for its portrayal of women. Sometimes that's deserved but horror is one of the few genres that regularly features gender parity in its casting and features heroic female leads. This episode will consider a few examples of horror films with feminist bona fides.

October 15: Techno-Horror 
Technology is supposed to make life better but it sometimes it goes very wrong. From Frankenstein to Demon Seed to Jurassic Park, horror films have explored our anxieties about technology.

October 22: George A. Romero & Tobe Hooper Retrospective 
In the past year we lost two of the great horror directors: George A. Romero and Tobe Hooper. Romero was best known as the architect of the zombie genre but he was was a much more diverse filmmaker than that. Hooper created some of the most memorable horror films of the 1970s and 80s including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem's Lot, and Poltergeist.

October 29: Reboots and Remakes/Pledge Drive
On October 29th, KMSU and KQAL will air different programs.

89.5 KQAL FM: For better or worse, reboots and remakes are a cornerstone of Hollywood's release slate and the horror genre paved the way with Dawn of the Dead and Halloween. This episode will look at the horror remakes that equaled or eclipsed their predecessors.

89.7 KMSU FM: The station will be in the midst of its fall pledge drive.  Sounds of Cinema will feature the pledge drive program. 

October 30/31: Halloween Special
Airing on Monday, October 30th at 11pm on 89.5 KQAL FM and then again on Tuesday, October 31 at 10pm on 89.7 KMSU FM, the Sounds of Cinema Halloween Special will provide the soundtrack for your All Hallows Eve with an hour-long mix of Halloween-related film music.
Sounds of Cinema can be heard every Sunday morning on the following stations:
  • 9am on 89.5 KQAL FM in Winona, MN and online at
  • 11am on 89.7 KMSU FM in Mankato, MN and online at

Thursday, September 28, 2017

What to Make of 'Mother!'

Before it leaves theaters, I want to weigh in on Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! I’m not so interested in explaining or exploring the film’s allegory and what it means. There is plenty in the movie that is provocative and fascinating (you can find my review of the film here) but for the moment the actual content of Mother! takes a backseat to the implications of its disastrous theatrical release. This film clarified where American cinema and its audience are at this moment and the results aren’t good.

First, we have to acknowledge that Mother!’s release was a failure. As of this writing, the movie has made just over $14 million domestically. That’s not even enough to cover its modest production budget of $30 million. The movie did fairly well at Rotten Tomatoes (68% fresh) but CinemaScore, which polls opening night audience reactions, gave the movie an F.

Why did a generally well-reviewed movie from one of today’s most interesting directors land so badly? I would argue that a film’s theatrical success is not really determined by reviews or by the quality of the movie. Instead, the box office is really a referendum on the marketing campaign. Paramount sold Mother! as a horror picture. It has horrific elements but this was not a movie for the audience that showed up for It and Annabelle: Creation and they probably felt tricked. The wrong crowd was drawn to the theater and they hated it.

Another problem was the release strategy. Many commentators have praised Paramount for opening the movie wide like a blockbuster title. (Mother! played in over 2000 theaters in its first weekend.) While I am happy to see a major Hollywood studio put out such an interesting and daring movie, the wide release was a mistake. Wide releases are fine for mainstream movies or franchise films that have a proven brand name. Mother! was anything but that.

Because of the closing gap between theatrical and home video release dates (and the ever present threat of piracy) there is increasing pressure to get the movie out to the public as quickly as possible. As it is, most releases make about a third of their theatrical gross in the first weekend and make the majority of the total theatrical gross in the first few weeks. Titles are typically gone from cinemas soon after that.

This “open wide” strategy (or “hit-and-run” if you prefer) has become the norm for studio releases over the last three decades. And as Hollywood studios continue to give up on medium budget films in favor of big movies with multi-million dollar production costs they end up treating everything like a franchise title. With Mother!, Paramount tried to put a circular peg into a square hole and it didn’t fit.

Mother! should have been a platform release, which is to say that it opens in a few theaters at a time and gradually expands. That is no guarantee of box office success but it is a much slower release process and—critically for a movie like Mother!—it allows the picture to find its audience. There is a contingent of people who really like this movie, myself among them, but Mother! didn’t reach those people first. Instead, Paramount courted the Friday night audience with a movie that wasn’t made for them.

This brings me to the viewers. It’s easy for me to be cynical here and sound like a snobby critic so I’ll try my best not to.

The mainstream Friday night audience doesn’t come to the theater looking for a challenging cinematic experience. They are interested in entertainment, not art, and that is fine. But it’s hard to be a movie fan and be anything other than discouraged when something special like Mother! gets released and audiences don’t respond. The movie requires effort by the viewer to engage with its visuals and parse out their meaning. I don’t think today’s mainstream audiences are willing to do that. This is partly due to what viewers have been acclimated to expect. Almost all mainstream movies are literal. There isn’t a lot of experimentation with form and style in Hollywood releases or even in the independent film market. I have to speculate that if Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange or David Lynch’s Eraserhead were released today they would probably get an F rating at CinemaScore.

Mother!’s failure is all the more boggling because the internet is full of consumers complaining that Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas. Numerous articles were written in the past four months explaining the depressed summer box office with “franchise fatigue.” Meanwhile, the top grossing movies released so far this year are almost entirely sequels or spinoffs as are the titles presently dominating the box office. But when something really creative and original comes along like Mother! (or something good but not based on a major property like Detroit or Wind River or Logan Lucky) the audience stays home. Remember that when you see the trailer for the next sequel, reboot, or remake. Hollywood isn’t the one hostile to creativity. We are.

The final insult to Mother!’s theatrical release came from  its writer and director Darren Aronofsky and lead actress Jennifer Lawrence. The movie is an allegory and Aronofsky and Lawrence decided that the prudent thing would be to explain the symbolism in their press interviews. This is a disastrous decision. The whole point of making an allegory is to let the audience figure it out. I recently spoke to writer Kenneth George Godwin and on the subject of symbols and allegory he said, “To just tell people what [the film is] trying to say, I think [the audience is] going to say, ‘Well, that’s just claptrap and who cares.’ Whereas if you leave it unexplained, then the person can experience the film for themselves.” Godwin is exactly right and that’s precisely what’s happened. Explaining the meaning takes the mystery out of the movie and makes it easy to dismiss as pretentious. As long as the meaning remains open to interpretation, the work inspires the audience to keep talking about it and find things in it that the author may not have intended. This is what sustains great works of art. That necessarily means that the filmmaker loses some control over his or her creation as it goes out into the world. Ironically, I would argue that this is central to what Mother! is about, much more so than Aronofsky’s intended ecological message.

So what are we to make of Mother!? Aronofsky made a bold and fascinating movie that is destined for cult status when it hits the VOD and disc markets. But for all its impressive visuals and big ideas, Mother!’s greatest revelation may be how crippled American movie-going has become. Maybe Hollywood studios don’t know how to sell a movie like this anymore and perhaps there’s no theatrical audience for it. If that’s the case, it’s a shame and it doesn’t bode well for the future of American cinema.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Summer 2017 in Review

Labor Day brings an end to the summer and to the summer movie season. Here is a review of some of the trends in American cinema since May.

Box Office Armageddon
A lot has been made of 2017’s box office which was the worst summer season in a quarter century. The popular explanation for the downturn is franchise fatigue and Hollywood’s overreliance on sequels. The problem with that explanation is that twelve of the top twenty-five grossing movies released so far in 2017 were sequels and that number climbs to fifteen if we count spin offs of existing franchises like Wonder Woman and The LEGO Batman Movie. Meanwhile, plenty of original films didn’t perform well at all such as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Logan Lucky. Even The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which has been the top earner for the last three weeks, has made less than $60 million.
It could be that the summer paradigm is over. Historically, summer was a dead season for movie attendance (especially in the early years of cinema before air conditioning was commonplace). Prior to the 1970s, the fall and winter holiday season was the most lucrative time for Hollywood and major releases opened at Christmastime. After the success of Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977, summer became synonymous with blockbuster spectacles and it has remained that way for the past four decades. However, we may be in a period where the calendar is shifting once again. The spring release of megahits like The Hunger Games in 2012, Captain America: The Winter Soldier in 2014, Furious 7 in 2015, The Jungle Book in 2016, and Beauty and the Beast in 2017 indicate that the blockbuster season is gradually moving from May-June-July to March-April-May. Indeed, five of the top ten grossing movies released so far this year opened in the spring.

The other shift is in television. Throughout the network era, the summer was a wasteland of reruns and the fall was prime TV season with new shows debuting and hit shows returning with new episodes. In the era of HBO and Netflix, new and popular television programs like last summer’s Stranger Things and this year’s The Defenders and Game of Thrones are coming throughout the year and television habits have unmoored from the traditional seasonal schedule.

There is also a more obvious answer: a lot of the big movies this summer just weren’t very good. Alien: Covenant, The Mummy, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Rough Night, Baywatch, and Transformers: The Last Knight were lousy movies and their box office performance reflected this. Hollywood’s constant scapegoating of Rotten Tomatoes, a website that aggregates film reviews, is a tacit acknowledgement that these films weren’t good.

Superhero Films to the Rescue
Despite all the doom and gloom about the summer box office, one consistent performer was the superhero genre. Yes, the comic book marketplace is saturated and yes, many of these films are redundant with one another. But the fact is that several of the most successful and most entertaining movies of summer 2017 were superhero adaptations including Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. In fact, it’s safe to say that 2017 offered the best crop of superhero movies since 2008.

Comedy Ain't Funny
The worst genre this summer—by some stretch—was comedy. This was the summer of The House, Rough Night, Baywatch, Snatched, and The Hitman’s Bodyguard. These movies were derivative, lazy, and not funny. Critics and audiences seemed to like Girls Trip but I wasn’t impressed.

You Probably Missed the Best Movies of the Summer
Although the superhero films dominated the summer box office, several impressive adult-oriented dramas were released this summer, some of which will be best-of-the-year-list contenders. The trouble is no one went to see them. The heavily publicized release of Detroit only generated $16 million domestically. Its box office failure is disappointing not only because it was a great movie but it was also in touch with this political and cultural moment. (Then again, that could be exactly why viewers skipped it.) Also underseen was the crime drama Wind River. This film wasn’t promoted as heavily as Detroit but it did have recognizable stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen. It’s discouraging to see these films fail at the box office, especially for those of us who want Hollywood to break up its bloated end of the year release slate.

On the lighter side, there were some other great films that didn’t quite find their audience. Atomic Blonde, an R-rated action film based on a graphic novel, was another good entry in the resurgence of practical action moviemaking. Filmmaker Steven Soderbergh returned with Logan Lucky, an Ocean’s 11-style heist movie that was a lot of fun. War for the Planet of the Apes was modestly successful but it wasn’t the hit that it should have been. And the best family movie of the summer was the underseen Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie.

There were also some really good indie films released this summer. The most notable was The Big Sick, starring Kumail Nanjiani as himself in the story of how he met his wife Emily Gardner. Some other interesting titles include The Wall, A Ghost Story, Ingrid Goes West, Good Time, and The Beguiled. As independent features, many of these titles didn’t open outside of metropolitan areas but many of them should be available on disc or streaming services this fall.

In Summary
The box office failure of many big budget films was the dominant story in entertainment media this summer but it tended to obfuscate that there were at least as many good films as there were bad ones.

The Best Movies of the Summer
  • Atomic Blonde
  • Baby Driver
  • The Beguiled 
  • The Big Sick
  • Captain Underpants: His First Epic Movie
  • Detroit
  • Good Time
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  • Ingrid Goes West
  • Logan Lucky
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • The Wall
  • War for the Planet of the Apes
  • Wind River
  • Wonder Woman

The Worst Movies of the Summer

  • Alien: Covenant
  • All Eyez on Me
  • Baywatch
  • The Dark Tower
  • The Emoji Movie
  • The Mummy
  • The Only Living Boy in New York
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
  • Rough Night
  • Snatched
  • Transformers: The Last Knight