Talking Movies

July 18, 2011

The Movies aren’t Dead, they just smell funny – Pt I

Mark Harris’ GQ article The Day the Movies Died has caused quite the stir this year.

Harris makes a number of interesting points in his article, which I’ll get to in Part II, but he also adopts a number of poses which I’ve criticised in the past. I was infuriated by the speciousness of his opening salvo which characterises the present as the nadir of cinema. His characterisation of the studio response to Inception is entertaining but his clinching quote “Huh. Well, you never know” isn’t real; it’s a characterisation by him of the studio response. I could rewrite that entire paragraph to end with my Groucho & Me in-joke producer character Delaney wailing “I don’t get it. I saw that movie twice and I still don’t understand it. I couldn’t even get a single trailer to properly explain it, according to people who understood it, so why did people go see it?”, and it might be just as accurate albeit more generous. If I added “And why did they see Inception and then boycott Scott Pilgrim?” it would be even more accurate. What’s frustrating is that Harris is better than this. He quotes uber-producer Scott Rudin, whose warning of the danger of betting on execution rather than a brand name is exactly what led to the studio shrug at Inception that Harris misinterprets. Christopher Nolan is due a disaster at some point. Every director, writer, playwright, musician, artist will make a screw-up of epic proportions at some point. Would you like to have to explain to your shareholders how you bet $300 million on it not being at this particular point? There is no point in making a movie no one will want to see. Even when execution is perfect, as in the case of another whack-job concept from last summer, Scott Pilgrim, people may just not go.

Harris almost destroys his argument by the way he makes it. It’s an extremely cheap shot to list movies coming out in summer 2011 and summer 2012, not by their titles but by de-contextualised sneers based on their sources, before footnoting what the films are so that you can’t easily check which sneer corresponds to which film. This is the snobbery I questioned in my Defence of Comic-Book Movies run riot, and is incredibly inane bearing in mind that The Godfather would be ‘pulp fiction crime novel’, Gone with the Wind – ‘airport novel historical romance’, Casablanca – ‘failed stage play that couldn’t even get staged’ and The Empire Strikes Back – ‘sequel to a kids sci-fi movie’. Harris’ tactic can devastate 2011’s attractions when they’re listed as adaptations of comic-books, a sequel to a sequel to a film devised from a theme-park ride, two sequels to cartoons, adaptations of children’s books, and a 5th franchise instalment. But shall we parse that approach to listing Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cars 2, Kung Fu Panda 2, Winnie the Pooh, The Smurfs, and Fast & Furious 5?

The underlying assumption is that comic-book movies are rubbish because comic-books are rubbish. Never mind that Green Lantern was an enormously risky undertaking when he’s just complained Hollywood doesn’t take risks – I’ve read Green Lantern comics, no one else I know has, and many consider him to be the most ridiculous character in the DC Universe – a position tantamount to saying that execution doesn’t matter, only the source material, which is patent nonsense. Sneering at POTC’s origins is embarrassingly 2002; POTC 4 should have been sneered at because POTC 3 was an endless joyless bore that forgot everything that made POTC1 such fun. Sequels to cartoons are not intrinsically bad, something Harris unwittingly demonstrates by yoking together sequels to a charming animation and an unbearable animation. If Winnie the Pooh has no right to exist because it’s an adaptation of a children’s book we must also blacklist Babe and Watership Down, while The Smurfs is almost entirely dependent on execution. Any source can be good or bad, depending on the execution. Stephen Sommers could direct War and Peace and it would be awful, and titled War. PG Wodehouse didn’t apologise for knocking out another Jeeves & Wooster novel when he thought of an amusing storyline for them, and Fast & Furious 5 isn’t bad because it has 5 in the title – what is this, numerology?

Harris criticises summer 2011 for not having an Inception type wildcard. But does he really think people have concepts like Inception every day? What was the blockbuster people grasped for as a reference point for Inception? The Matrix. So, it only took 11 years thru the alimentary canal, as Harris puts it, for the success of the Wachowksis’ whack-job high-concept blockbuster to produce another successful whack-job high-concept blockbuster. But the lack of Inception in Space in the summer 2012 slate informs his dismissive roster-call whose lowlights are The Dark Knight Rises being a sequel to a sequel to a reboot of a comic-book movie, and Breaking Dawn: Part II being a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a sequel to an adaptation of a YA novel. Harris’ logic appears to be (a) directors have no right to film all of a multi-novel cycle or (b) artistic integrity demands the cinematic Twilight story be left hanging. Neither of which persuades, while dismissing Nolan’s Bat-finale in such ludicrous fashion purely because of a dislike of comic-books undermines all his judgement calls.

Harris semi-apologises that some of these movies will be great, but surely he knows this apology is defeated by his prior cleverly contrived presentation of an avalanche of stupidity heading towards the multiplexes? He quotes a studio executive lamenting: “We don’t tell stories anymore.” Well, Hollywood does tell stories, the problem is the screenwriting is apparently done by jaded supercomputers… The Dark Knight astounded because of its sense of creeping unease that this could go anywhere. I praised Win Win for the same quality. Nolan and McCarthy are serious writer/directors and there will always be enough such ‘auteurs’ to make a crop of quality films every year. The question is whether studio tactics, counter-productive market research, lazy CGI, and a hype machine eating itself are all working against cinema by lowering the standard journeymen film-makers operate at…

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February 2, 2011

2011: Fears

The franchise is over, please go home
Man of the hour Andrew Garfield is your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man in Spider-Man 4. If ever a franchise needed a reboot less it was Spider-Man. Inexplicably back in high school Spidey will again bond with Martin Sheen’s ill-fated Uncle Ben, perhaps actually have a relationship with Gwen Stacey at the second cinematic attempt, and once again become a masked crime-fighter. Just like he already did in 2002. Are we operating on dog-years now or something that we’re remaking films we’ve just seen? What’s next, a remake of Sin City using new computer technology to make it good? Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides sees Johnny Depp spend the last remnants of his credibility on another instalment in a now thoroughly despised franchise. Pirates 3: At World’s End was a nigh endless joyless bore that sucked all the comedic energy out of the franchise in favour of convoluted plotting and purely green-screen action to the point of insanity. No one liked it. It’s even embarrassed away nearly its whole cast, and Russell Brand passed on appearing, so why make another one? Mission: Impossible 4 meanwhile sees over-rated Ratatouille director Brad Bird attempt to make Tom Cruise a viable star again despite the obvious fact that no one wants to see him top-lining blockbusters anymore. Mission: Impossible 3 was a damn good blockbuster whereas Mission: Impossible 2 was a bloated disaster, yet, despite the effect of 6 years worth of inflation on the box-office figures, M:I-3 made less money than M:I-2. Cruise’s star has dimmed, he just hasn’t accepted it yet.

A sequel? There wasn’t enough to make one good film
Cars 2 – coming soon. Yes, the very worst film Pixar have ever made gets a sequel. Cars followed the underwhelming The Incredibles and enabled a streak of 4 ho-hum films, with the unbearable Ratatouille and the hit-and-miss Wall-E confirming that not only can Pixar do wrong, but they can do wrong spectacularly. Fear this film. The Hangover 2 meanwhile sees Bill Clinton make an acting cameo beside the re-united original cast. The Hangover wasn’t a very good film, for all its baffling success here. It had some very funny moments but overall it was the same crudely moronic shtick we expect from writer/director Todd Philips, the maker of Starsky & Hutch, one of the very worst films of the last or any other decade. Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes a whopping 10 years after Tim Burton’s lamentable re-make of the Charlton Heston classic. We’re promised genetic engineering by James Franco with Tom Felton, intelligent apes, and apocalyptic war to boot, and who cares?? The endless sequels in the 1970s were riffing off a great film. This is a prequel to one of the very worst films of the 2000s.

You screwed up last time
Michael Bay has actually apologised for the unholy mess that was Transformers 2, and that’s quite something given how ludicrously profitable a movie that was. Transformers 3: The Dark of the Moon sees Megan Fox leaving the franchise, but from the trailer it looks like it still has enough racial profiling in its approach to characterisation to keep the California branch of the ACLU tied up for years. Can it really only be 4 years since the original movie was a surprisingly fun blast? The writers’ strike is largely responsible for the disastrous outing last time but can the properly working writers save things now, and perhaps not introduce about 40 new robots this time round? Scream 4 comes out 11 years after the last movie in the series which suffered greatly from creator Kevin Williamson’s abandonment of his franchise to script his TV show Dawson’s Creek. Williamson has been producing supreme dark popcorn of late in the shape of TV series The Vampire Diaries so fingers crossed that his script for this new combination of the original cast with youngsters including Emma Roberts and Hayden Panettiere lives up to the high standards of its mighty predecessors.

8 Miles High Concept
Cowboys & Aliens may in future years come to be regarded as the moment where the masses totally abandoned cinema in favour of forms of entertainment that were slightly more philosophically challenging, like tiddlywinks. It could be a good film, after all the redoubtable Daniel Craig is starring and Iron Man helmer Jon Favreau is directing, but from just seeing the title and then reading the pitch it seems almost like some drunken executives made a bet as to what the most ludicrous high-concept they could possibly get green-lighted was, and this narrowly beat out Flying Monkeys Vs Crab People in 3-D.

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