Talking Movies

February 3, 2016

The Great Star Wars Lie

You are being lied to, repeatedly and with purpose, by massive entertainment corporations using a media all too happy to shill for the sake of Hollywood glamour driving traffic numbers.

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I’ve been writing about this truth for almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog. A series of articles in February – April 2010 ruminated on Avatar and its reception, and I posed one very simple question back then which is even more relevant now: why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Summer 2007 was a nadir for sustained mendacity: almost a case of “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”. But now we have a new whopper on our hands: The Force Awakens. Back in 2010 I noted that 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 made after 1982 that makes the all-time Top 10 once you adjust for inflation.

Yet right now we are being repeatedly whacked over the head with the notion that The Force Awakens is the most popular film in the history of popularity and film. And thankfully Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com has weighed into the fray with a truly irrepressible combo of sarcasm and statistics:

If you squint and fudge in just the right light, The Force Awakens is now sorta-kinda the biggest hit in United States history, and has maybe a 50/50 shot of catching Avatar for the No. 1 global spot.

Actually, a further word on Disney’s loud crowing this week about SW: TFA having reached the status of Biggest Movie Ever. That word would be “oh no, you don’t.” If you adjust for inflation — which is, y’know, how actual economic comparisons are done — it’s not even close. According to Box Office Mojo’s seemingly reasonable calculations, The Force Awakens is now roughly the No. 21 movie of all time, well below such titles as The Lion King, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Exorcist. It will certainly climb a fair bit higher, but I’m not convinced it will earn the extra $300 million required to catch Doctor Zhivago at No. 8. And I would bet Donald Trump’s bottom dollar that it won’t get anywhere near the all-time champ, Gone With the Wind, which made almost $200 million in 1939 dollars, in a nation with less than half our current population where the typical movie ticket cost less than a quarter.

The new Star Wars is a big movie, for sure. But it’s not quite as ginormous and culture-dominating and universally beloved as Disney wants us to think it is. The bigness of TFA, or at least the idea of its bigness, is a central element of the Mouse House strategy to spin Star Wars into a marketing, merchandising and entertainment empire.

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Since he wrote that piece The Force Awakens has climbed up to reach 11 on the all-time list, but is still nearly 200 million shy of catching Doctor Zhivago. It would need to double its gross to date to topple Gone with the Wind… But what does it all betoken?

O’Hehir sees deep cynicism in The Force Awakens’ marketing style of lying constantly about record-breaking popularity. Back in 2010 I wrote that the obsession with opening weekends was a betrayal of proper cultural criticism, never mind the lasting quality of the film feel the quantity of its inflated takings, and was actually lobotomising cinema. 2007’s summer of the threequel proved enough eye candy and CGI could, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend; which word of mouth would then collapse precipitously. I hoped Avatar had firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends by starting slow, not breaking any records, being almost dismissed as a failure for that, but then, when its takings didn’t collapse but remained constant week after week, being trumpeted as a phenomenon. But then Shutter Island was hailed as Scorsese’s most successful opening weekend, and Tim Burton’s Alice the most successful 3-D film opening weekend.

Now I think that nothing is ever going to change this hyperbolic approach, because, even more than the cynicism O’Hehir identifies, I believe it betokens desperation. Adjusting for inflation raises the extremely uncomfortable truth for Hollywood that people are historically uninterested in cinema-going, no matter how many sensational headlines about record box-office business are fed out like so much pigswill.

I called for a ruthless insistence that Avatar’s box-office gross be discounted for inflation, because it hadn’t even dented the actual all-time Top 10. But now I think the best approach is mockery. The Force Awakens’ need to scream from the rooftops how popular is it is no less pathetic than Betamax’s plaintive advertisement in the 1980s reminding people it was still in the game. If you were really ginormous, culture-dominating and universally beloved you wouldn’t need to tell people you were quite so much.

Cinema is no longer as important as it once was. The archetypal Saturday night movie memorably recounted by Gus Van Sant on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, where the entire high school rocked up to the cinema because that’s what you did on Saturday night before anything else you might get up to, is long vanished. No amount of hype will bring that world back, just like no amount of fraud can hide the fact you can’t buy a house for the same price your parents did because of inflation, and that inflation didn’t magically not affect cinema tickets too.

Every time you hear The Force Awakens being trumpeted as uber-successful, so much winning it would make Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen tired of winning, remember you’re hearing a desperate plea for relevance rooted in insecurity. And think of this.

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June 22, 2011

Top 5 Cinematic Big Sisters

I recently saw Donnie Darko at the IFI Open Day and the brilliance of the double-act by the Gyllenhaal siblings made me think about compiling a shortlist, not of the best sisters in cinema because that’s a very long and different list, but of the best big sisters in film.

(5) Lauren Bacall (The Big Sleep)
It may seem odd to isolate this iconic film noir femme fatale role for this one particular quality but a huge part of Vivian Sternwood’s motive for keeping tabs on the investigation of Philip Marlowe is to protect her crazy little sister Carmen, and she’s prepared to do a lot to keep her safe…

(4) Anna Kendrick (Scott Pilgrim)
Anna Kendrick’s character is perhaps the best example of the hilariously unappreciated big sister. She’s perpetually put-upon by her younger brother’s best friend, who is constantly stealing her boyfriends, but continues to risk it, and hilariously continually suffers, for her loving compulsion to be forever doling out good advice to her irresponsible and inattentive sibling.

(3) Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)
Ferris’s big sister is eternally infuriated by his popularity, but, after a day where his shenanigans once again drive her up the walls, an encounter with a drug-addled Charlie Sheen (how little things change in 25 years) leads her to loosen up and finally stick up for her conniving but loveable younger sibling.

(2) Maggie Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko)
Always keeping an eye out for Donnie; quizzically observing his antics at their party; but never doing so without a good deal of snarkiness; the opening dinner scene; Elizabeth is probably the most convincingly nuanced big sister in recent memory, undoubtedly helped by the fact that this exuberant double-act is an actual brother-sister acting team.

(1) Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous)
“Listen to Tommy with one candle lighted and you will see your entire future”. Zooey’s break-out role was the impossibly idealised cool older sister who defies their mother on her younger brother’s behalf, before setting him on the path to his eventual career by bequeathing her awesome record collection to him; with handwritten cryptic instructions…

June 15, 2011

Top 10 Father’s Day Films

Heroes tend to be portrayed as lone wolves, and families rarely interest Hollywood unless they’re psychotic, but here’s a list of men who made the protagonists what they are, and the complicated bonds that gave them the self-confidence to individuate. Joss Whedon defined Mal in Firefly as being a terrific (surrogate) father for Simon and River in contrast to their actual father, because he wasn’t just there and terrific when it was convenient for him, he was sometimes great, sometimes inept, but always there. There’s too much written about surrogate fathers in the movies (read any article on Tarantino’s work) so I thought I’d mark Fathers’ Day with a top 10 list of films featuring great biological dads and great complicated but loving father-son bonds.

Honourable Mentions:
(Inception) The moment when Cillian Murphy opens the safe and tearfully discovers his father held on to Cillian’s childhood kite as his most treasured possession is an enormously powerful emotional sucker-punch of post-mortem father-son reconciliation.
(The Day After Tomorrow) Dennis Quaid excels as a father who was always around but half-distracted by work, who makes good by braving death in a quest to rescue his son from a snowpocalyptic demise.
(Twilight Saga) Bella Swan’s taciturn relationship with her small-town dad, who she only ever holidayed with and who embarrasses her, slowly blossoms as he steps up to the parenting plate with some hilariously comedic unease.

(10) Boyz N the Hood
Before he got trapped in a zero-sum world of directing commercial tosh John Singleton’s coruscating 1991 debut portrayed the chaos of gang-infested ghetto life in a world almost entirely lacking positive male role models. His script privileges the bluntly honest wisdom of Laurence Fishburne to such an extent that he basically becomes the ideal father for a generation of black men that Bill Cosby acidly noted was raised by women, for the exact same reason that Singleton has Fishburne deliver: it’s easy to father a child, it’s harder to be a father to that child.

(9) Kick-Ass
Yes, an odd choice, but filmic father-daughter double-acts of the Veronica & Keith Mars ilk are surprisingly hard to find. Nic Cage does an amazing job of portraying Big Daddy as an extremely loving father who has trained Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl to survive independently in a hostile world and to never need to be afraid. Matthew Vaughn mines an unexpectedly deep vein of emotional pathos from suggesting that such empowering mental training is a legacy that would keep Big Daddy ever-present in his daughter’s life even after his death. It takes Batman to raise a true Amazon…

(8) The Yearling
Gregory Peck’s Lincolnesque lawyer Atticus Finch was held up as the perfect father in Vanilla Sky, but I’d strenuously favour his father in this whimsical 1946 movie that at times feels it’s an original screenplay by Mark Twain. Peck plays the type of father who’ll let you run free, and make mistakes so that you can learn from your mistakes, but will always be there to swoop in and save the day when you get in over your head. This may be an idyllic portrait of the rural South but the father’s parenting style is universally recognisable.

(7) The Godfather
Vito grooms Sonny to succeed him and consigns Fredo to Vegas, but he loads all his hopes of respectability onto his favourite son, Michael. Eventually, in a touching scene in the vineyard, he accepts that the one son he tried to steer away from the family business is the only son truly capable of taking it on, and that he has to let Michael live his own life and become Don. The tragedy of Part II is that Michael makes his father’s dreams of assimilation his own, but his attempts to achieve them only destroy his family.

(6) Taken
Liam Neeson has been divorced by the grating and shallow Famke Janssen who has remarried for a privileged lifestyle, which she continually rubs Neeson’s face in. His relationship with his daughter, whose birthday he was always around for even if the CIA disapproved, has suffered from this disparity in wealth. But when she’s kidnapped hell hath no fury like an enraged father rescuing his little girl. Neeson’s absolute single-mindedness in rescuing his only child makes this an awesome action movie that uses extreme violence to prove the superiority of blue-collar values and earnest protective parenting over whimsical indulgence.

(5) Finding Nemo
Marlin, the clownfish who can’t tell a joke, is perhaps the greatest example of the overprotective father who has to recognise that maybe he’s projecting his own weaknesses onto his son; and that he has to let Nemo attempt something that he, Nemo, might fail at, if Nemo’s ever going to succeed at anything. This lesson is of course learned over the length of an extremely hazardous journey as Marlin displays his absolute dedication, to the point of self-sacrifice, to saving his only child. In a weird way this combines elements of both The Godfather and Taken

(4) Wall Street
“Boy, if that’s how you really feel, then I must have done a crappy job as a father.” Martin Sheen’s words to Charlie Sheen show just how far under the spell of Michael Douglas’ daemonic father figure Charlie has fallen at that point in the movie. Oliver Stone followed Platoon’s opposition between two surrogate fathers with a clash between the humble blue-collar integrity of Charlie’s actual father Martin and the unscrupulous white-collar extravagances of his mentor Douglas. In the end Martin manages to make jail-time sound like an exercise in redemption because he will never desert Charlie.

(3) Gone with the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara, the ultimate survivor, is very much her father’s daughter. The post-Famine Irish obsession with the land is transported to America, and with it a desire never to be beholden to other people. Add in her father’s furious and quick temper, which gets him killed, and huge pride, and nearly all the elements that make up Scarlett are complete. She adds a ruthless skill in fascinating malleable men to become the supreme movie heroine. When Rhett leaves her and she’s inconsolable, her father’s words echo thru her mind, and she returns triumphantly to Tara.

(2) Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade
“He’s gone Marcus, and I never told him anything at all”. Spielberg likes to joke that only James Bond could have sired Indiana Jones, and Henry Jones Jr despite his eternally fraught relationship with Senior really is a chip off the old block; hilariously evidenced in their sequential relationship with Allison Doody’s Nazi; and that’s why they don’t get along. In a convincing display of male taciturnity it takes both of them nearly losing the other for them to finally express how much they love the other, well, as much they ever will.

(1) Field of Dreams
“I refused to play catch with him. I told him I could never respect a man whose hero was a cheat”. Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella has to bankrupt himself building a baseball field in his crops and magick the 1919 White Sox back into existence to do it, but he finally manages to atone for his sins and play catch again with his deceased father. There are few better pay-offs to shaggy-dog screenplays than when Ray realises the last player on the field is his father, as he never knew him, a young and hopeful man, before life ground him down. If you aren’t in floods of tears by their lines, ‘Is this heaven?’ ‘No, it’s Iowa’, then you’re already dead.

The Beaver

Mel Gibson belatedly re-unites with Maverick co-star Jodie Foster for a deeply moving and quietly topical drama.

Gibson plays Walter Black, a hopelessly depressed businessman, who is slowly driving his family over the edge. As the opening narration tells us of his physical and emotional slump, “It’s as if he’s died, but just forgot to take his body with him. So now mostly he just sleeps”. His wife Meredith (Foster) finally throws Walter out, but, just as he is about to commit suicide, he is saved by the intervention of a hand puppet. Walter takes to communicating only thru this ‘prescription puppet’ so that people must literally talk to the hand. His younger son loves this new persona, while Meredith accepts it because Walter is rejuvenated by this odd psychiatric treatment. His company’s fortunes revive too as Walter’s idea for a children’s carpentry set, Mr Beaver’s Woodchopper Kit, becomes an unexpected success. But then requests for interviews come in and Walter appears on TV, or rather The Beaver does, espousing his peculiar brand of philosophy while dismissing Walter as a mere shell of a man…

I’d have thought if anyone would attempt resuscitating Gibson’s career it’d be Robert Downey Jr repaying past favours, instead it’s almost the last person you’d expect – Jodie Foster, directing only her third film. She draws from Gibson a bravura performance that is also oddly humble. He has barely any dialogue as Walter, and after a while you hardly look at his face when he talks but instead find your gaze drawn to the perfectly synchronised gurning of his cockney hand-puppet. Gibson’s vocal performance as The Beaver is spectacular, as not only can he leap from chirpy to inspirational to menacing within a few lines, but he is also obviously replicating the accent of his recent co-star Ray Winstone to produce a well ’ard no-nonsense persona you instantly buy as capable of bullying Walter off a hotel balcony ledge and back into control of his life. The Beaver though is not a comedy; indeed it features the nastiest piece of off-screen self-harm since The Prestige.

The film becomes steadily more sinister in order to depict the toll that depression, bereavement, and the salacious publicising of such private torments, take on people. Walter’s teenage son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is obsessively fearful of becoming like his father, and so has compiled a list of 49 ways in which he is like him, each one of which he aims to eliminate thru concerted effort. Porter easily writes classmate’s assignments for money, as he has no personality to get in the way of mimicking their styles, because he has emptied himself out from fear of what he may be genetically destined to become. Yelchin is fantastic in capturing the mixture of dread and anger that powers this character’s fear and hatred of his father’s traits which will become his traits. Foster’s quietly devastating performance includes a moment where the fear in her eyes is tangible when she stands with her young blonde son, looking at her dark-haired son lying depressed on a sofa, just like her dark-haired husband…

Observing all this chaos is Porter’s superficially well-adjusted classmate Norah (Jennifer Lawrence). “Everyone loves a train wreck, just so long as it’s not us”, says The Beaver, and Lawrence skilfully portrays the shift in Norah’s attitude from contempt at the self-loathing Porter and his crazy father to a compassionate sympathy. Porter’s drafting of her valedictorian speech becomes a futile exercise because his anguish unleashes her suppressed despair over her brother’s death – “Pain is in our DNA, tragedy is our inheritance. Things will not be okay, but you won’t be alone.” Oddly enough that subdued epiphany does double service. The circus that engulfs Walter eerily parallels the blanket media coverage given to Charlie Sheen’s implosion, but you know when things turn tragic the media will melt away and estranged family will be left to pick up the pieces. Perhaps it’s time our popular culture switched from cruelty to compassion, and exploiting mental illness to understanding it.

It took the comedic maguffin of The Beaver to get a film about depression onto our screens, but ignore the misdirection; this is worth watching.

3/5

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