Talking Movies

November 25, 2011

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part II

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

Deja Vu
I’m finding it impossible to work up any enthusiasm either to read Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel The Help or to see its very successful film adaptation. The reason is that The Help is what I like to call a ‘self-evident proposition’ work.

JEFFERSON: Isn’t liberty a great thing?
ADAMS: Um, yes. Were you expecting a different response to that question?
JEFFERSON: No, I just wanted to check that it was indeed a self-evident truth.

Having seen trailers, clips and interviews I feel like I’ve already seen the movie and read the book.

THE HELP: Wasn’t racism in the Deep South in the 1960s awful?
AUDIENCE: Um, yes… obviously – got anything else to add?
THE HELP: Isn’t inter-racial class-divide-crossing female empowerment just swell?
AUDIENCE: Get out…

I praised Emma Stone when I reviewed Superbad for InDublin in 2007 but I’m not about to watch predictable platitudes just to boost her to a well-deserved A-list status. Especially not when the platitudes are wrapped in another faux 1960s package, hot on the heels of Mad Men, Pan Am and X-Men: First Class. I’m a bit of sick of people caricaturing a decade they weren’t around for to make themselves feel enlightened.

The Horns of Desolation
I had the misfortune to stumble across the final scenes of Troy some weeks ago. My Delaney sketches can be traced back to one colour piece in the 2004 Christmas issue of the University Observer where I poured as much scorn as 908 words could hold on Troy. A poorly scripted mess that is stunningly disrespectful of one of the founding texts of Western literature and brought to botched life by a mixture of hammy or simply ill-judged performances Troy is a film that few people will ever watch again willingly. Which leads to the intriguing idea that any work wasted on it could be salvaged for use elsewhere. James Horner scores the fall of Troy with blaring horns and trumpets that bespeak desolation and the fall of an ancient civilisation, and I knew the melody they were playing very well. But I hadn’t seen Troy since 2004 so I couldn’t know the music from Troy itself. I seemed to associate the music with another film entirely but oddly also particularly with just such a scene of a culture being traumatically destroyed. And then it hit me, it’s the music from Avatar! The assault on Hometree and then the final battle – it’s the same horns of desolation. Horner, by association of ideas genuinely composed the same melody and orchestration again, or, (as I hope) directly lifted music he’d composed and foolishly thrown away on a much loathed film and re-used it on a much loved film.

February 19, 2011

In Defence of Comic-Book Movies

Ah inconstancy, thy name is critic. At least when it comes to comic-book movies…

Cast your mind back to the summer of 2005. In June Batman Begins was hailed as intelligent and dark, a triumphant re-invention of the Dark Knight. Fantastic Four was then greeted with a universal groan of “Oh No, Not Another Comic-Book Movie!” in July. In September A History of Violence was enthusiastically received: it was compelling, disturbing, and, um, a comic-book movie. This predominant snobbish attitude towards one particular source of movie adaptations is unwarranted. There has never been, nor will there ever be, enough original screenplays to feed the beast; cinema is forced to cannibalise other mediums. Films have been made of out novels (Never Let Me Go), plays (Rabbit Hole), novellas (Shopgirl), short stories (The Box), poems (Troy), magazine articles (The Insider), TV shows (Star Trek), and yes, Hollywood even managed to get out a two hour film out of the country and western song Harper Valley PTA.

Why then do critics have such scorn for comic-books, just one source among many? The quite often blanket condemnation seeks to encompass a whole medium in one idiot generalisation. Can you imagine ignoring the variety and depth of the novel form which encompasses Cecilia Ahern as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky with howls of “Oh No, Not Another Novel Based Movie?” How then can one condemn a form which includes Maus and Palestine as well as Batwoman and Witchblade. It is odd that comic-books should be so peculiarly obnoxious to some critics as a source of stories given their properties. Comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema being a combination of words and images. Indeed all films are storyboarded scene by scene, that is, drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally did the obvious and treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were a storyboard and simply shot what was drawn. It’s just a pity they picked such a goddamn lousy comic to pay such veneration to.

Hollywood is feeding into the production line a whole medium of already visualised blockbuster adventures dripping with characters that possess enormous and positive name recognition. The comic-books that tend to be plundered are probably more suited to the serialisation now possible in television, but have to be Hollywood blockbusters owing to the special effects budgets needed for convincing superheroes. Heroes though showed that it was now possible to deliver convincing effects on a TV show and, utilising the expertise of comics great Jeph Loeb, create a serial story that hooked viewers. Its cancellation though leaves the multiplex as the natural live-action home of the DC and Marvel universes. And with great budgets come great responsibilities. To minimise the risk of flopping mega-budget movies for the most part (Avatar, Titanic) play things extremely safe; quite often it’s not the comic-books being adapted that are dumb but their film versions, as studios dumb then down for the greatest mass appeal. Indeed reviews of comic-book films miss this distinction by sometimes seeming to pride themselves on complete ignorance of the comics, witness Donald Clarke’s pre-packagedly jaded review of Fantastic Four. His sneers at the comic-book sowed doubts that he’d ever read it or he would be aware of the unexpected emotional depth of the original 1961 title. He also elided its importance in creating the Marvel stable, its success allowing Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to go on to create characters from Spider-Man to The Hulk and Iron Man to the X-Men.

Critics seem to regard comic-book movies as being intrinsically juvenile and unworthy of the big screen, but tend to praise the work of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, purely it seems because of their propensity for explicit sex and violence which, apparently, are the hallmarks of ‘mature’ movies. The twinning of Miller and Moore has become ever more farcical as Miller’s pet-project The Spirit exposed the sublimely stupid nature of his aesthetic, while Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman comics exposed the gulf between what a mature comic dripping wit and allusiveness and a film dripping CGI and test-screenings can do with the same concept. One can defend comic-books by citing Moore, who always wrote comics with big ideas (V for Vendetta, From Hell) before turning to novels (Voice of Fire, Jerusalem), but most comics merely aspire to be fun. And if a comic is well crafted, clever, exciting and affecting fun, why shouldn’t it be praised in the same way that Kathy Reichs’ Bones thrillers deserve great praise even if they are held to be populist trash next to a far less popular but oh-so-zeitgeisty Jonathan Franzen ‘masterpiece’?

Not every work of art is a penetrating insight into the human condition, not every work of art needs to be, most just aspire to be a good story well told. Is that not an admirable aspiration? Sneering at comics ironically recalls the scorn poured on people who valorised the works of mere entertainers like Hitchcock, Ford and Hawks seriously before the advent of auteur theory lionising them by Cahiers du Cinema. I unapologetically previewed a number of comic-book movies in my 2011: Hopes piece because comic-book movies are Hollywood’s flagship product right now, and a good comic-book movie is a good movie. Comic-book characters and scenarios obviously resonate or talented writers and directors wouldn’t continue to be drawn to them in comic and cinematic form. Indeed comic-book movies will only improve as more risks are taken. Mark Millar’s The Ultimates is the greatest blockbuster you will never see. It is intelligent, subversive, hilarious, outrageous and unfilmable because it would be too risky for the insane budget needed. Before condemning comic-book movies for dumbing down cinema read about Freddie Prinze Jr, trying to revive his flagging career by making a film about the super-team, but instead merely enraging Dr Bruce Banner: “HULK WANT FREDDIE PRINZE JUNIOR!!”

What we have right now are the comic-book movies that we deserve, but arguably en masse not the comic-book movies that we need…

January 28, 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

(10) Whip It!
Drew Barrymore’s sports comedy-drama about Ellen Page’s smart high-school girl rebelling against her conservative mother’s ideal of beauty pageants by joining the riotous Texas Roller Derby is an awful lot of fun. Filled with sparkling turns from a female comedic ensemble, and some well-choreographed and bone-crunching stunts, the creaking of the plot mechanics does become a bit audible in the second act, but the third act is pleasingly subversive on two counts.
(9) Avatar
This is closer to the Cameron of Aliens than we could have hoped for. The script appears to have been generated by the same computers as the impressive bespoke special effects but, Worthington aside, the actors sell it well, aided by the fact that Cameron remains a master of emotionally manipulative action sequences; with the 9/11 style destruction of Hometree genuinely upsetting while the final half-hour is pulse-poundingly emotive and well orchestrated.
(8) Kick-Ass
A little gem of ultraviolent comic-book capers from the imagination of Mark Millar this faithfully follows the origin myth template but without PG-13 imposed morality; Batman would be feared by criminals because he acted like Big Daddy, gangsters would react like Mark Strong’s exasperated Don. Matthew Vaughn’s script improves on its source material in mining an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos in the Big Daddy /Hit-Girl relationship.
(7) Let Me In
Matt Reeves follows Cloverfield with an incredible stylistic switch but retains his stark vision. This intimate horror features a number of nail-biting suspense sequences and improves on the Swedish version by making Abby scarier and more manipulative, with Owen more complicit, and by re-instating moral horror into this coming-of-age story. Reeves upsets everything we know about Americanisation by taking an over-rated film and making it bleaker and more affecting.
(6) Iron Man 2
A fine and very fun film with excellent cleverly counterpointed performances from Downey, Cheadle, Rourke and Rockwell as a consulting villain and a real villain, and a responsible hero and a drunken hero. The first act moves at an insane pace verbally and is full of wonderful comedic touches. So what if Nick Fury solves the plot for Tony Stark, my gripe is with the inconsistent relationship between Pepper and the poorly used Black Widow and the déjà-vu action finale.


(5) Scott Pilgrim Vs the World
The comedy of the year is deliriously nonsensical, filled with joyous touches, played perfectly by the youthful ensemble (aided by insane cameos), and is chockfull of superb visual gags. It is, like Wright’s Hot Fuzz, a bit too long but this is as crazy and original as big studio films get and, like (500) Days of Summer , characters break-up not because of dastardly secrets but because they’re as fickle as Ramona with men or as shallow/cruel as Scott dumping Knives after two-timing her.
(3) The Bad Lieutenant
Werner Herzog’s ecstatic madness finally returns to his dramatic features in an examination of the bliss of evil. He drags a barnstorming performance worthy of Klaus Kinksi out of Nicolas Cage and plasters the insanity of his recent documentaries onto what is structurally a solid police procedural, before you add iguanas and drugs, and nonsense, lots of nonsense. This black comedy towers above Ferrara’s portentous original aided by a surprisingly reflective ending.
(3) A Single Man
Colin Firth’s stunning performance is only one of many dazzling elements in a heart-breaking film punctuated by outstanding moments of black comedy and shot with an amazing eye for style, sartorial and visual. Director and co-writer Ford has managed to transform a forgotten Christopher Isherwood novel into a compassionate meditation on human relationships and the crushing nature of bereavement and grief which is also sprinkled with hilarious lines.
(2) The Social Network
The founding of Facebook was played out with amazing scenes, lines, and ideas and gripped like a vice with a constant unnerving tension surrounding the actions of central villain Mark. There were echoes of Fincher past in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ rumbling beats, especially underneath Sean’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo, and Sean was in a way the Tyler of this tale, whose rejection leaves no happy ending. Sorkin’s script has witty repartee but its emotionally raw opening scene sets the movie’s tone. Favouring Fincher’s pessimism over Sorkin’s optimism makes this an uneasy masterpiece.


(1) Inception
Nolan wins not just for the tremendous redemptive emotional kick the whole movie builds to, when you read the film on its most superficial level where it’s too neat structurally for its own good, but because once you look deeper you realise that this is a puzzle piece worthy of a UCL English graduate; it supports many contradictory readings, none of them definitive. See a loose thread and pull and the garment does not unravel, it changes pattern and remains coherent. ‘Ellen Page’s character is too obviously an expositional device’. Yes, unless her insistence on talking through the plot with DiCaprio’s character is because she’s a therapist hired by the rest of the team to exorcise Mal from his memory… This is a blockbuster rubik’s cube of a caper movie combined with sci-fi thriller, which exploits the ability give physical reality to subconscious emotional scars, in order to dazzle both eyes and mind with spectacle, ideas, and meaty drama.

November 9, 2010

23 Minutes of Tron:Legacy

I can’t help but have the strangest feeling of déjà vu in writing this, and not just because this is an incredibly belated sequel to a 1982 pop culture touchstone.

My second posting after properly launching this blog in September last year was a review of the 15 minutes of Avatar that James Cameron had chosen from the first and second acts to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers. Now here I am again reviewing 23 minutes of scenes chosen from the first and second acts of another 3-D CGI heavy spectacular to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers. The film this time is Disney’s Tron: Legacy which considerably changes the aesthetic of Tron and so has generated an inordinate amount of excitement for a sequel to a film that I don’t think I’m alone in not having seen in years, and which is remembered largely for its once nifty effects but not for being a great movie. The 1980s day-glo colours have now been replaced by black, white and orange and an oh-so-hip Daft Punk soundtrack.

The 2-D opening sees the estrangement of Jeff Bridge’s son from his father’s company and from his ‘surrogate father’ established. A mysterious page from a disconnected number summons our hero to a basement where the Eurhythmics and other 1980s music starts pounding as soon as he flicks the circuit-breaker. Before you can say Zap a laser has inserted him into his dad’s computer game. Now firmly in the land of 3-D and CGI he’s caught by a huge flying joystick and dumped into the underground programming lair where four women, dressed and moving like they’re in a Daft Punk music video, emerge from the walls to kit him out in his updated Tron suit and attach a disc-drive to his back. “What am I supposed to do?” he asks. “Survive”, one of the women replies before melting back into the wall. Survive he does, as he’s immediately thrown into The Games and fights another program in a ridiculous game that seems like it was invented after too much air-hockey and late-nights with writers’ block. You throw your disc-drives at each other, if you get hit, you splinter apart. If you hit the floor hard enough with the disc you can splinter it too. “Activate!”

Inter-textual jokes are never that funny: Thirteen requested a leave of absence to go to Rome but got sucked into an arcade-game-universe by accident. ‘Joking’ aside Olivia Wilde, dripping eye-liner, has a great entrance; pan-caking bat-pods in a bat-mobile, if they were animated in the style of Sin City. She then starts to dispense plot-points between flicks of her pageboy hair and settles into being the love interest. So, an actress so charismatic that The OC never recovered from the end of her recurring role becomes the latest TV heavy-hitter reduced to cinematic eye-candy. Our hero meets his father, Jeff Bridges, in the fabled ‘safe house’. “This means something” Olivia Wilde insists to him, but what? Well, the second and third acts then flit by in a trailer-flash of enticing images, one of which is surely a spoiler as it seems that a young ‘program’ Jeff Bridges is the one pulling all the strings…

The 3-D is as superfluous as ever. Far more interesting is that Tron: Legacy looks completely different to the original, yet much of the design is similar, just darkly coloured and more slickly realised. I’m not sure exactly why I’m excited about this film. Maybe Disney have correctly diagnosed a hitherto unsuspected nostalgia for revisiting Tron while Bridges was still able to reprise his part with beloved Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges eager to not just reprise but deepen his signature role from Tron. Whatever the reason is this is my recommended Christmas blockbuster.

April 1, 2010

Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation)

So, for this the final part of the three-part series, it is finally time to examine the Top 10 Films (Adjusted for Inflation) to see historically what has been most popular with audiences. And the answer (un)surprisingly tends towards the gimmicky, the romantic, the big broad brushstrokes, the zeitgeisty, and the already popular from other mediums…

10  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
9    The Exorcist
8    Dr Zhivago
7    Jaws
6    Titanic
5   The Ten Commandments
4    E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial
3    The Sound of Music
2    Star Wars
1    Gone with the Wind

Gimmickry showcasing of spectacle, especially spectacle unavailable to TV, is important in a number of these films. The Exorcist was full of grotesque effects that TV legally couldn’t replicate. Dr Zhivago and The Ten Commandments showcased the widescreen landscapes TV couldn’t do with The Ten Commandments also being a special-effects extravaganza as well as having the proverbial ‘cast of thousands’. Star Wars was of course mind-blowing when released because of its complete reversal of previous film-making methods involving model-work, and Gone with the Wind was both in the expensive and new ‘glorious technicolour’ as well as being so lavishly produced that a Confederate veteran famously complained of the burning of Atlanta sequence that “If we’d a had that many men we’d a won the damn war!”. Jaws was nearly the pinnacle of the 1970s obsession with shooting on location, 1937’s Snow White was a risky gamble that audiences would accept feature-length animations (you’re welcome Pixar), and Titanic was a monumental folly of integrating huge sets with unprecedented use of CGI.

We criticised Avatar for using broad brushstrokes but many of these films use such a large canvas you’d have needed a damn mop. The difference is craft… Jaws was such a superbly directed suspenser that Hitchcock handed the torch to Spielberg, who then reduced children and their parents to blubbering wrecks with E.T.’s outrageous emotional manipulation. The Sound of Music showcases its joyous musical numbers with a much sharper script that you remember, and Satan Vs Christ is enlivened by a sub-plot of some depth about faith and doubt in The Exorcist. Lean never lost sight of his characters’ emotional truth in Dr Zhivago’s epic landscapes and The Ten Commandments was filled with charismatic performances, while Snow White and Star Wars enacted their simple archetypes with great charm. Gone with the Wind meanwhile successfully melds an intimate love story with an epic backdrop with humour, romance and compelling dramatic grandeur.

I’ve previously argued Gone with the Wind’s release just before the world plunged into World War II was apt as people on the brink of unimaginable horror responded to it as a tale of civilizations swept aside and one strong survivor battling through. Stephen King argued that The Exorcist appealed to parents concerned about losing their kids… and those teenagers, eager for shocks. Jaws was a subtle allegory of post-Watergate political tensions, Star Wars showcased the all-American optimism that had been so lacking in 1970s cinema, while Charlton Heston’s Moses appeared in Eisenhower’s reign as President during which Ike added references to God to both dollar bills and the Oath of Allegiance. Critics meanwhile noted E. T. as one of the first mainstream films that was informed by the new baby-boomer experience of a divorced father’s absence from a middle-class white family and the bitter cost on the children.

A number of these films were adapting already popular material. Snow White was a universally beloved fairytale, while The Exorcist, Dr Zhivago, Jaws and Gone with the Wind had all been bestselling novels, and Cecil B DeMille was dramatising the Bible. Robert Wise was adapting a hugely popular stage musical from the reigning kings of Broadway, while Star Wars drips with archetypal elements from Joseph Campbell’s rummaging thru the heroic legends of the world’s ancient cultures, and everyone thought Titanic was clichéd in the way Avatar was clichéd in its use of over-familiar story tropes, and on top of a famous event to boot. E.T. is the only original script here which would have been completely unpredictable to audiences. Perhaps the decline of reading as attention-spans collapse has eliminated the universal reception possible to films in the past, especially Gone with the Wind whose casting of Scarlett O’Hara was as protracted and famous as it was simply because so many people already had their image of Scarlett from reading Margaret Mitchell’s book. The new impossibility of gathering a monolithic audience in any sphere of entertainment means no film will ever top Gone with the Wind.

Oddly enough for an age that regards romance as a structural necessity regrettably foisted onto blockbusters or the stock-in-trade of the worst genre in the world (rom-com) we find romance dominating half these films. Snow White is the idealised fairytale romance, Omar Shariff and Julie Christie are thwarted lovers married to the wrong people in David Lean’s swooning 1965 epic, while forbidden romance again figures in Maria’s transformation from nun governess to beloved stepmother of the Von Trapp family, and Titanic is the archetypal American romance between an uptown girl and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And of course the most tormented, dysfunctional, sweeping romance of them all stands at the very zenith. “Our love is epic”, Logan Echolls told Veronica Mars, “Epic?” “Epic. Spanning continents and decades. There’s betrayal, bloodshed and heartbreak. Epic.” And damn if Epic Love isn’t still the top film of all time. From the Golden Age of Hollywood comes the mythic love story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler’s romance while the Confederacy burns around them.

Titanic is the only film made since 1982 on the list. Seven of these films overcame television, with Titanic also defeating the ubiquity of video which removed the urgency of seeing something ‘only in theatres’, but we are now at an historic low for cinema-going. Why is a question for future postings…

March 11, 2010

Not Adjusted for Avatar

Following on from the last entry on the malign influence of the sensational reporting of box-office returns not adjusted for inflation, we look at Avatar – its slow-burn success, broad brushstrokes approach in the history of cinema, and its possible heralding of the future.

Avatar has done one unquestionably positive thing – it has firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends. It started slow, not breaking any records as is now obligatory, and was about to be dismissed as a failure for that, when its takings didn’t fall off a cliff after the opening weekend but instead remained constant and then kept making money at the same level week after week. It has since made money for longer than nearly any other film in recent memory. However you can rest assured that this will not be enough to change the ways of the media, which have been reporting Shutter Island as the most successful opening weekend of Scorsese’s career, and then also trumpeted Tim Burton’s Alice fiasco as the biggest opening ever for a 3-D film… Deep sigh.

Marketing can generate enough buzz to generate the opening box-office needed for a lazy headline. Conversely Avatar did not make enough money on opening for a lazy headline and so the focus was, pleasingly, thrown on to its craftsmanship – or lack of it. Perhaps because he was painfully aware of how much money he’d been given for his dream project Cameron opted for the broadest brush-strokes possible to generate maximum return, and it worked so he’s a genius to Hollywood, whereas if it hadn’t worked they’d be more exercised about the lazy derivativeness of his story even if his basic skills at manipulating emotions work. But then isn’t emotional manipulation the core of cinema? Graham Greene said that cinema was a series of images arranged in a certain order to generate a particular emotional effect, Stephen King wrote that American cinema was idiotic as far as communicating ideas went but that for sheer emotional impact its use of imagery was masterful, and Hitchcock’s explanation of the power of cross-cutting in ‘pure cinema’ explicitly prioritises using images to manipulate an audience’s response on an emotional level. I think there’s more to be said about Avatar and so, once I finally figure out what my point is, I’ll be returning to it again in coming weeks. But here, let’s note that its broad brushstrokes approach has a precedent in past stellar successes.

Peter Biskind’s grand narrative (mentioned last time) which prioritised the licentious New Hollywood of the 1970s over the Golden Age of Hollywood seems to assume that there is something fundamentally compromising about reaching a large audience. One would think that an artist would want to reach as large an audience as possible but Biskind’s ideology insists that an artist loses their integrity if they make a film suitable for all rather than narrowing the size of their audience, so that, for instance, Christopher Nolan jettisoning sex and language to get a PG-13 for The Dark Knight compared to an R for Insomnia represents self-censorship and a cheapening of his talent. I would argue that helming a blockbuster in such a way as to make it distinctively a Nolan film is more challenging and it is precisely the ingenuity exercised in the over-coming of arbitrarily imposed limitations that makes it a greater artistic success than the rather ordinary thriller for adults with which he paid his studio dues. It could be argued that the same difficulty involved in working with the Hays Code was responsible for the Golden Age, and it ties in with Stravinsky’s dictum that true artistic creativity needs rules and restrictions, which he frequently imposed on himself arbitrarily to replace the lost discipline of classical tonality, not total freedom. There will be another article in the coming weeks about the most successful films of all time (adjusted for inflation) but it is dominated by films everyone could enjoy. It’s easy to make your friends laugh, it’s harder to make strangers laugh, and Biskind’s idols largely fall into the first category of connecting with a small audience – and then sneering at more popular works as being artistically compromised.

Avatar aims at the widest possible audience but its archetypal story-structure is the zenith of a recent trend towards deeply predictable films – even a charmer like Whip It! has audibly whirring plot mechanics in its second act before unexpectedly subverting expectations. That refreshing unpredictability is unnecessary if people can write each scene in a three-act structure with a spark so that you’re too captivated by the content to notice the scaffolding but of late, especially in rom-coms, films seem less to be written than generated by software programs. Arguably cinema attendances are at historic lows because of boredom at this formulaic approach. Hollywood thinks the solution to declining interest in cinema is to trumpet 3-D technology and increase ticket prices but wouldn’t the sensible solution be to make better films? When I saw the trailer for Alice in Wonderland I thought “That looks pretty stupid”, but when I saw the trailer in 3-D I thought “That looks really stupid”. We need to ruthlessly insist that the box-office gross of Avatar be discounted for inflation and its 3-D mark-up because chances are it’s not even dented the All Time Top 10 (adjusted realistically). And if that’s the case then we need to ask hard questions about what Hollywood is doing so wrong at this present moment to have led to such a historic disconnect with audiences, and the answers will not be stories we could write ourselves from seeing the trailers, presented in gimmicky 3-D.

February 25, 2010

Adjusted for Inflation

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 Spider-Man 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…

September 15, 2009

Third Time Lucky for 3-D?

So, Avatar is allegedly going to change the future of film-making, but is the third time really going to be the charm for the adoption of 3-D technology?

3-D first appeared in the 1950s and despite Alfred Hitchcock utilising it in Dial M for Murder it’s remembered best as a gimmick used for shlock horror films like the original House of Wax, ironically directed by a Hungarian Andre de Toth who only had one eye but memorably explained “You only need one eye to look thru a viewfinder”. Right now we can witness something of the same dynamic – brilliant directors like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg are all working with 3-D motion capture technology, but the cheap and cheerful shlock horrors will always outnumber the quality pieces. Which begs the question that’s always dogged 3-D, is the technology a brilliant film-making tool to more accurately depict the world as we experience it or just a flashy gimmick?

Once upon a time painters discovered perspective and so rendered the world more accurately than it had previously been depicted. Should we regard the coming of 3-D as the same leap as that between religious icons and renaissance painting? It’s not as if cinema is currently badly lacking a sense of perspective and volume, as anyone who clung to their seats for fear of falling down the abysses of the cityscapes in the IMAX Dark Knight will attest. Is the ‘need’ for 3-D as spurious as wanting to see the Mona Lisa in 3-D? Or is 3-D is to be compared with the innovations of sound and colour? The coming of sound while derided initially as a gimmick in truth merely got rid of the freakish aberration cinema had introduced of silent acting. The coming of colour was also a gimmick at first, something to make Gone with the Wind look even more spectacular or to convey the difference between grey Kansas and magical Oz. If you want proof of the slowness of adopting colour just look at Hitchcock’s career. Between arriving in Hollywood in 1940 and making I, Confess in 1953 Hitch made just two colour films. Between 1954 and 1976 he made just two black and white pictures. The move from glorious technicolour to more realistic colour certainly added this process, the ability to use colour as magisterially as he did in Vertigo helped, but the threat posed by TV in the 1950s was probably the deciding factor. The advent of TV saw cinema do epics, extras, wide-screen and colour – anything in fact to distinguish itself from what the goggle-box could offer. It also saw the first wave of 3-D films but 3-D technology fizzled out.

The second wave of 3-D came at another time when cinema was considered in peril, the 1980s, and this time TV’s cousin the video was the villain. So 3-D films again appeared, I have childhood memories of one film which one involved the hero getting into peril in various burning houses so that flaming rafters could fall towards the audience. I may have missed some of the subtleties of its plot. Actually, no, I don’t think I did. Once again cinema survived, and 3-D did not. Now here we are with cinema under threat from this generation’s big bad, online piracy. And the saviour is something that can’t be recreated except in a cinema, it’s…digital 3-D. Hmm. 3-D has been rejected as a gimmick each time it’s been fan-fared where other innovations have endured.

I lean towards the belief that 3-D has been rejected each time while other innovations have been adopted because it is essentially a gimmick, and for this reason. 3-D films currently being released tend towards two camps. There’s films where children reach out their hands towards the screen to touch the characters (Monsters V Aliens, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and films where teenagers squirm at the dismembered body-parts and pick-axes flying off the screen towards them (The Final Destination, My Bloody Valentine). In both cases 3-D seems to be a blank cheque for abandoning serious effort on the script in favour of shallow special effects moments. When the trilogy of heavyweight directors arrive, they will bring a wave of PG-13 thrill-rides like Avatar, but can you conceive of anyone filming a serious thoughtful drama like Good Night, and Good Luck in 3-D? Until the answer to that question is yes, then 3-D will always remain gimmick.

September 9, 2009

15 Minutes of Avatar

If Sigourney Weaver wasn’t in the cast you’d have the horrible suspicion that the writer/director behind this film was not James Cameron but George Lucas…

Cameron’s return came with not just a trailer but world-wide screenings of 15 minutes of scenes from the first and second acts of Avatar, chosen to give a taste of the film without revealing spoilers, as he explained in his introduction. They should then give a good flavour of what to expect from the 3-D CGI animation/live-action mash-up extravaganza that is Cameron’s first film since Titanic, but the taste is sweet and sour.

The first scene showcased was a briefing about the extremely hostile inhabitants of a planet the military was trying to colonise (how very Aliens) but as you paid more attention you realised with a shock that this wasn’t bad motion-capture CGI but actual actors, 3-D had somehow made flesh and blood look oddly unconvincing compared to the CGI animation that followed. The next scene where Sigourney Weaver explains the preposterous plot to Sam Worthington improves on that unsettling experience dramatically but most of the film will obviously be the CGI animation adventures of Sam Worthington in his alien avatar body goofing around on the planet. And the plot is preposterous. Worthington, a crippled military hard-man, has his mind inserted into the big blue body of a humanoid alien inhabitant of the planet, and ends up closely resembling Joshua the dog-man from Cameron’s TV show Dark Angel.

Is Terminator: Salvation’s star really the right choice to carry such a huge film? For a long time I thought it was Sam Huntington (sublime as Jimmy Olsen in Superman Returns) who had got this part, which would have made for a funnier contrast between avatar and human rather than the pathos Cameron is aiming for, but arguably also made us root for the hero more. Worthington’s not that charismatic a presence in the footage screened and he’s not helped, as he blunders about shooting at various ill-tempered beasties, by a script packed with very obvious punning which recalls The Phantom Menace painfully at times. Zoe Saldana’s sexy tough as nails native alien love interest comes right out of the Ripley/Sarah Connor stable of Cameron heroines but her accent is right from the Jar Jar Binks School of Racial Stereotyping.

As for the 3-D, if you like seeing shell-casings fly towards you or fronds sweep around as the camera tracks then the 3-D is great, and scenes of night-time phosphoresce are stunningly beautiful. However the action depicted feels very, very familiar – in one scene Worthington has to tame what is basically a pterodactyl and then fly off on it to, oh who cares? And ow! why do my eyes hurt? Avatar has all new glasses for the latest refinement of the technology but (leaving aside the fact that since 3-D’s first appearance in the 1950s an ever-increasing percentage of the population has to put 3-D glasses over glasses) 3-D is still at best a draining experience, and at worst a painful one, which is why most 3-D films in this latest wave have been around 80 minutes long. Avatar will probably march towards the 150 minute mark, and, combined with action that’s distinctly déjà-vu of Jurassic Park, Star Wars, et al, that’s a hard sell…

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