Talking Movies

February 25, 2010

Adjusted for Inflation

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:29 pm
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Avatar will be discussed in this blog next week but the coverage of its success inspires this related and very simple question – why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Who could forget what summer 2007 felt like: “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spiderman 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. Notice something suspicious here? How it seems that nearly all the records were set by recent blockbusters? Suspect that there’s an unholy alliance of lazy journalism and cynical PR operating? It’s a painfully easy headline to just rehash the press release from a studio boasting that its latest masterpiece has just “broken the record for the most takings between a Tuesday and a Thursday, before the 4th of July weekend, EVER!” It saves having to think about the quality of the film and its importance, if any. But box-office returns do not a classic make…

There are legions of now revered films from Citizen Kane to Fight Club that did disastrously on release. Critics and studios fought on for them though as prestige movies, and, over time, quality prevailed as their reputations soared while bad films that were more commercially successful were forgotten. Cameron Crowe almost anticipated that his excellent film would do badly at the box office by inserting Gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs into Almost Famous in a fashion that says as much about film criticism as it does about rock journalism. Art, this fictionalised Bangs argues, is where the uncool can hide their ugliness and transcend themselves. Artists hide behind their work, but rock stars have to be beautiful – they are always centre-stage. In the sphere of rock music the only place the uncool can hide is behind the byline. The journalists are the true custodians of something pure and high-minded that gets lost out there in the hype of tours and record sales. When the sales figures are forgotten enough journalists hammering on about artistic integrity and how something neglected really was great can provide a weird afterlife, like that of The Velvet Underground, who couldn’t give records away and have now entered our consciousness as a pivotal and important 1960s band. So it is that film critics can hammer home the virtues of neglected works and chip away at popular trash.

The obsession with opening weekends, which sees a film sink or swim by whether it can make enough money to be an easy headline for Monday’s papers, is not just a betrayal of this function of journalism it is lobotomising cinema. Quality is not important, as 2007’s summer of the threequel proved. If you throw enough eye candy and CGI at the screen it can, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend. Once word of mouth gets out it’ll collapse precipitously but who cares? It’s not like you’re crafting anything of lasting value, certainly not a sleeper film that will make money for months on end like When Harry Met Sally did as more and more people heard about its charms.

The banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film from the last 15 years that appears in the list of Top 10 Films of all time once you adjust their box-office gross for inflation. No Spider-Man 3 or Shrek 3 trouble the Top 10 despite shrill protestations of their record-breaking popularity. Odd, huh? But this note of reality destroys not only tabloid journalism but recent serious journalism. Peter Biskind has created a grand narrative that 1960s Hollywood was losing money precipitously because it was making films like The Sound of Music instead of Easy Rider. Well Easy Rider‘s box office isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit next to that of The Sound of Music. This grand narrative, which is almost an origin myth for sex, violence and drugs equating to serious drama and less explicit fare being censored triviality, falls apart as the figures prove that when given a choice audiences went to polished escapist crowd-pleasers over bleak grimy slices of nihilism. Star Wars was greeted as the Second Coming after a decade of films like Taxi Driver and Chinatown which critics revered but audiences, reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation rightly regarded as downers. Spielberg, derided by Biskind as a mere entertainer, has two entries in the Top 10 Films of all time!!

All of which raises questions that will be dealt with next week in discussing Avatar. Adjusting for inflation raises uncomfortable questions about what appeals to audiences by suggesting that people now are in fact historically disinterested in cinema-going despite sensational headlines about record box-office business. So let’s remember, it’s called show-business. Let’s have a little more focus on the show and a little less on the business. Leave the opening weekend financial statistics where they belong, on the back pages, of the Hollywood trade papers…

February 10, 2010

A Single Man

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 6:55 pm

Fashion designer Tom Ford makes a stunning directorial debut with a film whose unsurprisingly impeccable tailoring and gorgeous visuals are matched by surprising depth of characterisation and emotional maturity.

Colin Firth stars as George Falconer, a very English professor of literature in a small college in Los Angeles who we follow over the course of one day, November 30 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis has the world on edge but for the suicidal George the world already ended 8 months previously when his partner Jim died in a car accident. This being 1962 George has no public outlet for his crushing grief, indeed, in the most upsetting scene you will see all year, George only finds out about Jim’s death because one of Jim’s cousins defies Jim’s parents and rings from Colorado to inform George, before telling him that he can’t come to the funeral – which is for family only…

George outwardly appears to be exactly who is supposed to be, as he informs us in the opening voiceover but he is pretending on two levels, and the more important deception is not the pretence that he is straight but the pretence that he is okay. In fact he struggles to find any compelling reason to get out of bed every day as the one person who anchored his existence in the world is gone. Ford makes great use of suddenly varying the colour saturation within shots to show the bleakness of the world from George’s point of view, with occasional surges of colour when he is momentarily aroused or excited, or when he is overtaken by a sudden flood of memories.

Matthew Goode is wonderfully warm in these flashbacks as Jim, George’s partner of 16 years. What’s most refreshing is that Ford’s depiction of this gay couple prioritises the latter element over the former as we see them in scenes of cosy domesticity trading barbed insults alongside serious musings. A scene where they discuss women is marvellous for mapping changing gay mores as George remembers his youthful sexual relationship with his best friend Charley (Julianne Moore), an alcoholic divorced fellow English exile who is now his most tangible link with the world. Charley and an enigmatic young student (Nicholas Hoult) who is apparently stalking him might be the only forces able to stop George from killing himself, other than his endless inability to find a comfortable enough position in his bed in which to pull the trigger – a sequence of jet-black hilarity.

Ford, who financed the film as well as co-writing and directing, has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines. Firth’s performance which is full of dry wit beside the expressive grief is a career highlight in an early contender for film of the year. Highly Recommended.

4/5

February 1, 2010

Youth in Revolt

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 4:17 pm

Youth in Revolt stars Michael Cera, who pushes his luck by once again playing his customary role of awkward diffident teenager, this time named Nick Twisp. Cera’s Sinatra loving aspiring novelist is desperate to lose his virginity and sees the chance when he meets Francophile Portia Doubleday during an enforced trip to a trailer-park upstate.

But to win her he has to ensure that his deadbeat dad (Steve Buscemi) moves upstate and that his alimony-dependent mother (Jean Smart) kicks him out for his awful behaviour. This is where Cera escapes criticism that he can only play one role by also playing Twisp’s very own Tyler Durden – a dastardly French alter-ego (complete with villainous moustache) named Francois Dillinger who has no problem being bad…as the poor citizens of Berkeley quickly find out in a wonderfully choreographed sequence of property destruction.

Things are complicated however by Doubleday being sent to French Academy in Santa Cruz with her irritatingly preppy boyfriend to avoid Twisp’s ‘bad influence’. This causes Francois’ attempts to woo her to spiral out of control amidst nice comedic cameos from Fred Willard, Justin Long and Ray Liotta.

Youth in Revolt is always warm, and does have some hilarious moments, but overall it doesn’t add up to much. The main problem is that even though it is based on a epistolary novel the dialogue throughout seems to be aiming for Juno style hip quirkiness but keeps falling short and ends up just sounding faux-literary and stilted. Wait for the DVD.

2.5/5

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