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Black Panther Just Sent a $242 Million Message to Hollywood. Will It Finally Listen?



Black Panther is the rare film that doesnt just live up to the hype. It exceeds it.

The first-screening social media takes were breathless. The ensuing reviews were glowing to the point they may have blinded you. Pre-sale numbers hinted at a ravenous appetite for the film, and box office soothsayers predicted that the final tallies, when all was said and done after Presidents Day weekend, could be historic.

They wereand then some. Which is just how so many people who packed theaters across the globe over the weekend felt about Black Panther: It was all that we had hoped, but more than we could have dreamt.

Black Panther sent a $242 million message to Hollywood this past weekend. The question now is whether it will listen.

The latest Marvel film wasnt just the first to center around the story of a black superhero, it featured an almost entirely black cast. Chadwick Boseman plays the titular character, called TChalla out of his bionic spandex, the king of the East African nation of Wakanda. Orbiting around him are characters played by Lupita Nyongo, Michael B. Jordan, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, and Winston Duke.

That this cast and this film is this historic reflects the intrinsic fallacy of the industry: that films starring black actors and telling black stories dont sell.

Those lingering assumptions that black casts cant open films, that black films dont play globally, that mass audiences wont respond to a culturally specific story? Black Panther just hurled a grenade at all of them.

But whats even more significant is that Black Panther didnt just put a black actor in a superhero suit, it, with the guidance of director Ryan Coogler, soaked the film in blackness, in African culture, in that authentic wardrobe and culture and spirit. In response, audiences didnt just turn out. The film became an event.

The receipts were staggering. With a four-day holiday weekend tally estimated at $242 million, Black Panther was the second-best opening in that frame ever, behind only Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Its global haul of $404 million is monstrous in its own right.

It was the fifth-best opening of all time. It was the biggest opening ever for a black director, the first superhero film to feature a nearly all-black cast, and, perhaps in response to its ensemble of female ass-kickers (has any blockbuster ever crushed the Bechdel test this hard?), boasted ticket sales that were 45 percent women. Typically, that number is in the 35 percent range for superhero movies.

That idea that superhero films need to pander to fanboys to be a hit? Ha.

Oh, and by the way, it was really good. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97 percent fresh and a Kevin Fallon post-screening astonished whisper of, Wow it is the best-reviewed superhero movie ever. As always happens after a critical and commercial hit like this, pundits are all having the big OOscar!and for once it doesnt seem like ludicrous, premature hyberbole.

Those lingering assumptions that black casts cant open films, that black films dont play globally, that mass audiences wont respond to a culturally specific story? Black Panther just hurled a grenade at all of them.

Its both beautiful and frustrating to witness the fawning over the uniqueness of this phenomenon. Its beautiful because its so deserved. Its frustrating because each time we paint a success like this as unique, we are perpetuating that myth.

In fact, recent history has proven that this success shouldnt be considered surprising at all. Yet well continue to treat it as such.

Lets take a brief walk through box office history.

As Wired editor Peter Rubin pointed out on Twitter, Straight Outta Compton had a $60 million opening weekend on its way to a $161 million domestic total. Get Out earned $176 million. Just last summer, Girls Trip earned $115 millionan R-rated comedy starring four black women, with that kind of haul.

But its not just those films. Hidden Figures made $170 million domestically last year, ending up the highest-grossing of all the 2017 Best Picture nominees. Creed, which was also directed by Ryan Coogler, took in $109 million stateside on just a $35 million budget. The Butler, Selma, Think Like a Man Too, Best Man Holiday: they were all box office and critical smashes.

Its when you really look at what these films were that the message is driven home. You have a biopic, a horror film, a raunchy comedy, a family-friendly historical drama, a boxing movie, race dramas, and rom-coms. These movies cross all genres, all demographics, and all genders. Diversity so clearly sells. Yet because of Hollywoods institutionalized myopia and racial biases, were still astonished each time it does, and wonder if things will change when it comes to seeing the value of racein other words, of humanityin Hollywood.

The remarkable thing about Black Panther is that this was not a movie about black oppression, e.g. a slave movie. It features a black cast and all the big-budget production value of any other Marvel popcorn flick, without sacrificing the specificity of that black story in exchange for those expensive costumes and special effects. The message is that Hollywood responds to quality, especially when that quality reflects back a world that we know, but rarely see on screen.

Michelle Obama said as much on Twitter this weekend: Congrats to the entire Black Panther team! Because of you, young people will finally see superheroes that look like them on the big screen. I loved this movie and I know it will inspire people of all backgrounds to dig deep and find the courage to be heroes of their own stories.

How many major box office bombs featuring formulaic storytelling and whitewashed casts do we forgive as a casualty of the industrys risk-taking, all the while refusing to read the receipts when it comes to the bankability of diversity in film? Black film successes are ignored at the same rate that white film failures are.

Will that change going forward after Black Panther?

Fans are clamoring for sequels and spinoffs, and Marvel would be insane not to consider them. (According to Vulture, a spinoff centered on the films prodigious female ensemble is already enticing the suits at Marvel HQ.) But what about outside of the spandex?

Disney is releasing A Wrinkle in Time next month, which promises to be another major hit for an African American director (this time Ava Duvernay, who happened to edit her film in the office next to Cooglers while he was prepping Black Panther). Steve McQueens Widows, starring Viola Davis and Cythia Erivo, comes this fall. Next summer will see the remake of The Lion King from Disney. We foresee huge numbers for all three, while at the same time recognize that three is a paltry number to be able to point to.

At the end of March, one of Hollywoods most reliably bankable black directors will release a psychological thriller called Acrimony, starring Taraji P. Henson. While we cant speak to the quality of the movieit hasnt screened yetit will be a fascinating test case at this post-Black Panther crossroads in the industry.

Henson recently opened the film Proud Mary, a movie that was hardly good, but saw its commercial potential torpedoed by a studio that ultimately decided to bury it, skimp on promotion, and deny it the support that could have elevated it to an action-movie success, one that put up the kind of box office number that social media buzz suggested it could attain.

[Studios] never expect [black films] to do well overseas, Henson said while promoting Proud Mary. Meanwhile, you go overseas and what do you see? People trying to look like African Americans with Afros and dressing in hip-hop fashions. To say that black culture doesnt sell well overseas, thats a lie. Somebody just doesnt want to do their job and promote the film overseas. Do you not have people streaming my Christmas specials in Australia? Come on, yall! I dont understand the thinking. Send me over there, and if it fails, then we dont do it again, but why not try? If I knew this movie was gonna make money domestically, I would try to get more money overseas. Its business!

Its business, and for so long Hollywood has been bafflingly bad at it. Maybe it took a superhero to finally make the lesson hit home.

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Stephen Hawking made his mark on pop culture, as well as science

Charmaine Blake



Stephen Hawking in ‘The Simpsons.’

Image: fox

Stephen Hawking got plenty right about the universe, and that even extended to his thoughts on pop culture.

The Simpsons is the best thing on American television,” the late astrophysicist said on BBC’s The Culture Show, reflecting on his appearance on the hit animated series back in 1999.

The cameo was so prolific that it led to people thinking he was merely a character on the TV show, rather than recognising him for his work in science.

In 1999, Hawking appeared at the end of Season 10, in the episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” saving the day when Springfield’s utopian meritocracy crumbled.

“I was depicted as a somewhat surreal character with enormous powers,” Hawking said, noting the show’s writers definitely used a bit of artistic license.

“Among the equipment they used for my cartoon image, I don’t like pizza, and I hope I wouldn’t use a boxing glove. Though sometimes I’m sorely tempted,” he added.

Hawking would go on to make three more appearances in The Simpsons, including an cameo where he MCs with the Flight of the Conchords. He also appeared several times as himself in Futurama.

Hawking wasn’t just an animated character. He appeared several times in The Big Bang Theory, the idea he spent much of his life working on.

“You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite a boner,” Hawking tells Sheldon after reviewing a paper on the Higgs boson in a 2012 episode.

Hawking also played himself in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing a poker game with the greatest minds in physics, including Einstein, Isaac Newton and Data.

“The uncertainty principle will not help you now Stephen,” Einstein tells Hawking. “All the quantum fluctuations in the world will not change the cards in your hand.”

There were also appearances on late night talk shows, like the time he kept making phone calls to Jim Carrey on the set of Late Night with Conan O’Brien back in 2007, and his recent bit with John Oliver on Last Week Tonight‘s “People Who Think Good” series.

“You’ve stated there could be an infinite number of parallel universes. Does that mean that there is a universe out there where I am smarter than you?” Oliver asked.

“Yes,” Hawking replied. “And also a universe where you’re funny.”

While Hawking kept busy making cameos on a host of television shows, he was played by other actors including Benedict Cumberbatch in 2004’s Hawking, and by Eddie Redmayne in 2014’s Theory of Everything. 

Redmayne, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, dedicated the win to people with ALS, and the Hawking family. Hawking allowed the use of his speech synthesiser in the film.

Hawking’s influence also extended to music, where he voiced part of Pink Floyd’s 1994 track “Keep Talking” and 2014’s “Talkin’ Hawkin’,” both sampled from a BT commercial.

Although theories on relativity and black holes established him as a genius, his prevalence in pop culture made him a modern star, the likes science hadn’t seen before.

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The Shape of Water’s Oscars win is the triumph of a real artist and immersive cinema | Peter Bradshaw



Guillermo del Toro has created a richly sensual and dreamlike film that, in the end, seduced the Academy without being too threatening

At the end of a somewhat predictable evening, we were all longing for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to work their anarchic magic, and start handing out the awards to the films that werent in the envelope. Perhaps for the sheer devilment, they could have given something to, say, Kathryn Bigelows powerful race drama Detroit, a highly plausible Oscar-worthy film, which the Academy hive mind mysteriously decided was worth precisely zilch and became utterly forgotten about. In the end, many deserving films got what they deserved, others didnt, the internal economy of awards season dictating, as it so often does, that the rich become richer. And it was hardly obvious that this was the year of radical change in Hollywoods sexual politics. As my colleague Benjamin Lee notes in his blog this years Academy Awards in fact garnered the fewest female winners for six years.

Guillermo del Toros escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, the story of a young womans love for a captured sea creature with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight. It is a lovely piece of work, with a terrific performance from Sally Hawkins: you can get to the end of it, not quite believing that she doesnt say a word in the entire film, so commanding and eloquent is her presence. And yet in the end I couldnt quite swoon as much as everyone else and though this is a film which pays tribute to people who are different, it does so in the reassuring rhetoric of fabular unreality. There is something a little bit frictionless and unscary about The Shape of Water; though in progress, it has the eerie force of a dream. The Academy has gratefully submitted to its current and swirl.

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From the acting awards, for me, easily the most satisfying is Allison Janneys barnstorming turn as LaVona Golden in I, Tonya: the dragon matriarch or icerink showbiz mom in I, Tonya, whose daughter Tonya Harding became an skating star and was then disgraced because of her ex-husbands assault on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Like Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Janney plays an angry and unrepentant mother, and maybe the prevalence of mothers has been an under-recognised part of this years awards seasons, especially as Sam Rockwells racist cop in Three Billboards actually lives with his mother. (There is also Darren Aronofskys brilliant black comic provocation, Mother! overlooked, I am sorry to say, by the middlebrows and the sensible-shoe wearers of awards season, except of course to be mocked.) Janneys LaVona is a brilliantly nasty, funny creation, who is spared any spurious redemptive journey.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell got the best actress and best supporting actor Oscars for Martin McDonaghs jagged, angular, tonally unpredictable and for some objectionable black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The success of this film and the specific successes of these two stars in these two roles perhaps raises the thorny issue of intersectionality. McDormand radiated star quality in the part of the woman looking for justice for her raped and murdered daughter. What also radiated was her characters radioactive loathing of the police and of the men who didnt and dont care about women. She is a resoundingly satisfying and powerful winner in the era of #TimesUp. But Sam Rockwells racist cop is permitted a disputed moral comeback, and it sometimes looked as if his racism was allowed into the film as set-dressing, to offset a drama of forgiveness to which race was essentially irrelevant.

The movies admirers have been in a kind of Mexican standoff with this objection ever since it has been aired on social media, although I accept the good faith in which McDonagh created this character. Perhaps the least successful part of the film is that which is most easily forgotten: the sad, slightly whimsically uxorious tale of Woody Harrelson and his wife, played by Abbie Cornish. I personally would have preferred the best actress award to go to Saoirse Ronan for that excellent film Lady Bird, which came away from Oscar night empty-handed. And best supporting actor should really have gone to Willem Dafoe for his outstanding performance in The Florida Project: a performance which had a subtlety, resonance and genuine depth.

Of these three aforegoing adjectives, I think I can only really assign resonance to Gary Oldmans impersonation of Winston Churchill in Joe Wrights watchable wartime drama Darkest Hour, which won him his widely predicted best actor Oscar. He was roisteringly entertaining and charismatic, and the latex mask within which he was working interestingly different from the real, lived-in faces of other Churchill performances over the years gave his face precisely that babyish, cherubic expression that reportedly made him a seductive figure in real life. It was a highly watchable entertainment: comfort-food wartime entertainment, perhaps, but with a terrific storytelling zing. What actually made it different was not Oldman, in fact, but the emphasis on Halifax, an excellent performance from Stephen Dillane.

The screenplay Oscars (and the foreign language Oscar) made sure that the really great movies were not overlooked. James Ivory was a thoroughly deserving winner of the best adapted screenplay Oscar for his excellent work on Luca Guadagninos masterly love story Call Me By Your Name. It is highly satisfying to see Ivory, a veteran of cinema, get an Academy award which is not a lifetime achievement gong (though he surely deserves one of those as well) but something to recognise his continuingly vivid, urgently passionate work right now.

Get Out was the film that I had been hoping against hope might actually win best picture. Well, it won Jordan Peele the Oscar for best original screenplay, which is excellent news. Get Out is a brilliant satire on race and the gruesome twist ending of post-Obama America which functions also as a scary movie, black comedy and an acting masterclass from its four leads.

Very often, the foreign language Oscar is an embarrassing misstep for the Academy. Not last night it wasnt. I was tipping Ildik Enyedis strange love story On Body and Soul for this, while saying that Andrei Zvyagintsevs searing Russian drama Loveless would have been the worthy winner. In the end, I was wrong both ways but fair enough. The Oscar went to Sebastian Lelios glorious A Fantastic Woman, the story of a trans woman whose grief at the death of her partner is compounded by the cruelty and indifference of society. It is a wonderful film.

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Elsewhere, there were other solid choices: Coco was the only possible choice as best animation, and this arguably could and should have been a best picture contender although it is hardly in the league of Pixar movies like The Incredibles or the Toy Stories. Roger Deakins rightly won best cinematographer for his superb work on Denis Villeneuves Blade Runner 2049, although this award, justified as it is, perhaps doesnt reflect quite how extraordinary a big-screen experience this film is.

Mark Bridges was also justly rewarded for his costume design on Phantom Thread but for me this is another point of niggling exasperation with this years awards. Paul Thomas Anderson created another brilliant film here: a really masterly piece of work with a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis which was a jewel of this years awards season. And yet it has been overlooked in favour of less interesting work.

Well, there we are. To return to The Shape of Water: however conflicted I feel about its triumph, it is certainly the work of a real artist, and someone who believes in immersive cinema, total cinema, cinema that enfolds you in a complete created world.

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Science friction: can Netflix figure out its blockbuster problem?

Charmaine Blake



Costly sci-fi films have received poor reviews but the streaming giant still has an eager audience in its vast subscriber base

The future hasnt been kind to Netflix. In the last two months, its launched three science fiction blockbusters Will Smiths orc cop adventure Bright, the shock assault The Cloverfield Paradox, and the bizarre Berlin-set Blade Runner-riff Mute each of which critics reacted to as though a cockroach crawled out of their TV (not one film managed to score over 27% on Rotten Tomatoes). A fourth attempt, Alex Garlands Annihilation, about five female explorers in a technicolor hellscape, received better reviews but Netflix still couldnt win. It scooped up theinternational distribution rights from Paramount, who lost confidence in the Natalie Portman cerebral chiller and decided to release it theatrically only in the United States, Canada and China. Netflix rescued the film for foreign audiences … who grumbled that theyd be forced to squint at Garlands giant, surrealist visuals at home on Netflix.

If Netflix could see into its own future, would it green-light each film again? Probably. Its already given the go-ahead to Bright 2, and just awarded a first look deal to the heavyweight producer of Transformers and World War Z and snatched another major studio film from the trash bin when Universal dumped the planet invasion thriller Extinction. Plus, last Friday as Mute tested wary audiences already primed to ridicule Paul Rudds handlebar mustache, Netflix announced it had won an expensive nine-way bidding war to produce another costly sci-fi flick, Life Sentence, in which convicts have their brains wiped to prevent them from repeating their crimes. Directed by War for the Planet of the Apes Matt Reeves, Life Sentence repeats the same high-concept, name-brand fantasia thats made Netflix duck tomatoes. And yet, the timing of the news feels pointed: Netflix knows exactly what its doing.

Beamed Reeves, Netflix is at the forefront of a new age in how storytellers are reaching an audience. Frankly, Netflix knows more than anyone about how people watch movies. However, the industry still doesnt know much about it. Before Netflix, a films success or failure was gauged by three numbers: its budget, its opening weekend and its total global haul. But when Netflix launched its streaming service a decade ago, it began to horde more sophisticated information. Who exactly wants to watch a movie about an orc not just which broad demographic, but which specific people sitting on their couch on a Tuesday? What are the viewing patterns even subscribers dont recognize? The key words they search, the films that make them watch other films, the scenes that make them turn a movie off?

We know what people like to watch, said Netflixs chief communications officer Jonathan Friedland when the company began to produce its own original content in 2011. It wasnt an empty boast. Netflix knew that there was an audience for their first show, House of Cards, because it had studied the overlap between David Fincher fans who also liked British miniseries. Plus, it didnt have to spend a fortune blanketing the country with ads. It could directly reach specific viewers with ten different online promos tailored to whether the target was more likely to click play for a story about a powerful woman, or for Finchers camerawork.

Since that first triumph, Netflixs subscriptions have quadrupled. Today, more Americans pay for Netflix than for cable television, and after an intensive international push, over half of Netflixs users live abroad. Its rightly been called a disruptive force in entertainment, as though founder Reid Hastings legendary annoyance at being charged a $40 late rental fee for Apollo 13 had mutated into a vengeance to destroy not just video stores, but traditional Hollywood itself. Meanwhile, though we know that Apollo 13s opening weekend box office was $25.3m, Netflix rarely trumpets financial data about its releases. Doomsaying reports claim that only 5m viewers watched Cloverfield Paradox in its first week. But crunch the numbers, and thats actually about as many people who bought a ticket to Apollo 13.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Cloverfield Paradox. Photograph: Netflix/AP

Of course, the difference is that Netflix isnt trying to sell individual films. It wants to sell people on renewing their subscriptions or rather, not canceling them which is behind its strategy of taking risky swings. Sure, itd be great if the finished film was fantastic, and the companys investment in talented directors like Garland, Reeves and Mutes Duncan Jones means that it has good taste. Yet, what really matters is that people are talking about its orc cop flick, even if theyre just saying its a legendary disaster.

Traditional Hollywood studios struggle to sell full-price tickets to something iffy or complex like Annihilation or Extinction, an all-or-nothing push to inspire a trip to the theater, to make people make a choice. They have to scatter the film across 2,000 screens and spend major advertising money hoping the audience for it will hear, and care, that it exists. But Netflix embraces inertia. No ones going to cancel a subscription because one movie was bad. And hey, its fine if all people want is to sample 15 minutes of Will Smith grunting, Fairy lives dont matter, so they can join in the jokes. To Netflix, who needs less cash to reach a targeted audience and needs far less motivation from them its biggest danger in acquiring major studios cast-offs is the brand-tainting odor of being a dumpster diver.

Netflix has pledged to release 80 original films in 2018, a mix of small, quality films the company scooped up for cheap at film festivals and splashy, silly events guaranteed to get people tweeting, like the comedy Eggplant Emoji, about a teenager who loses his penis. Theres big money in giving people just enough excuses to maintain a low-risk subscription. Each month, Netflix makes nearly a half-billion in dues in America alone thats more than the entire domestic box office of Wonder Woman. For that money, they could make a high-profile disaster like Bright five times over, and still have enough pocket change for Oscar-nominated movies like Mudbound.

Perhaps to understand Netflix, we need to analyze their patterns just like theyve analyzed ours. The same key words keep coming up: strange, celebrity, curiosity, conversation. Whats more likely: that Netflix cant stop placing bad bets on costly science fiction films, or that these movies help them make money in ways the company isnt explaining? Maybe Netflix has the future figured out after all.

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