Talking Movies

June 30, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXXIV

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirty-fourth portmanteau post on matters of course!

Good Times, Bad Times

All of human life can be observed on the bus, the best and the worst. In the space of a week recently I observed benevolence and bowsiness. The bowsiness came courtesy of a new cycle lane, which gave me pause considering the BusConnects nonsense about putting cycle lanes everywhere as part of their bus ‘plan’.  As the bus pulled in to the bus stop a young woman moved forward to get on. Cue the one cyclist who would likely use the new cycle lane that hour, a white-bearded man leading two young children on bicycles. As he had to slow down to accommodate the microsecond it took her to board the bus he roared at some volume “F*** YOU! F******* YOU!!” and then cycled past, setting a splendid example to his grandchildren on how to treat strangers. I was quite taken aback, observing this road rage from the top deck. Should she have waited? Perhaps. But then the cycle lane was new. Certainly the screaming profanities were uncalled for. But then there was, mercifully, benevolence on another trip. Another white-bearded man, on foot, turned around and saw with horror the bus bearing down on him, some distance from the stop. He turned and began an agonised shuffling run, and it became clear this driver was one of those cohort in whom the milk of human kindness has soured; those who affect blindness whenever they can refuse to do someone a good deed. But then the bus’ speed began to fall. How odd. The car in front had noticed the man running and had dropped to a crawl to give him a fighting chance of making the stop. The bus driver was outraged, and hooted a couple of times. The car continued defiantly dawdling. Enraged the bus driver moved to overtake only for the car to accelerate, pushing the bus back into its holding pattern. By which time the white-bearded man had got close enough to the bus stop that he could make it by the time two Spanish students there had boarded. They were going to take their time. As the unhappy bus driver began indicating to pull in to the stop the smiling Spanish students gave thumbs up to the car who resumed normal speed down the deserted road. The white-bearded man made his bus, and it did the heart good to see such benevolence.

 

Netflix is a TV network, of middling appeal

How many people actually watch Netflix? Not that many NBC claimed a few years ago, bemoaning that a show like Jessica Jones which would be cancelled for low ratings on broadcast television became a media darling and propagandised as being a hit when on Netflix. Netflix used to keep their viewing figures a tightly guarded secret, while simultaneously boasting about the record-breaking success of everything on their service. Service? Network. Netflix is essentially a TV network. It’s not too hard to imagine in the near future Netflix, Amazon, Warner Bros+/HBOxxx, and Disney+ becoming the four networks of streaming in the way that ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox were the four networks of broadcast television in the 1990s. Indeed they may supplant them entirely, at least in the esteem of the media. Netflix claim that 30 million households/individuals/smarter than your average dachshunds watched their latest movie Murder Mystery starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. Wow! That is so impressive! Except… Only 13 million of those were in America. Given an average ticket price of $9.01 this year that would be an opening weekend haul of $117,130,000, a figure that puts Murder Mystery at No 11 at the North American Box Office for 2019! But of course Murder Mystery isn’t a movie, it’s a TV movie; something Netflix are moving heaven and earth to collapse as a distinction. Nobody had to leave their house to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to drive anywhere to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to buy popcorn to see Murder Mystery, nobody had to arrange babysitters to go see Murder Mystery, nobody had to put up with phone-using bozos to see Murder Mystery. And nobody had to fork out 9 dollars to see Murder Mystery, they’d already forked out $8.99 to watch as much as they could in a month. So taking Murder Mystery as a TV movie, which is what it is, on a TV network, which is what Netflix is, how impressive is it that 13 million people watched it in America over three days? Not very. 19.4 million viewers on average watched every episode of House season 3 but Fox didn’t release a press release to crow about it. It seems to be as important to Netflix as it is to Disney to create the impression that they are beloved on a level unknown to humanity before this moment. They’re not. 105.9 million Americans watched the finale of MASH in 1983. Beat that Netflix. Beat that Disney. If they’d all bought a ticket for it at $9.01 a pop, it would have made $954,159,000. But of course they didn’t have to – because it was (gulp) free.

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December 3, 2011

The Movies Aren’t Dead, they just smell funny: Part II

Several months ago I criticised the opening of Mark Harris’ GQ article ‘The Day the Movies Died’. In this piece I praise his argument regarding branding, but contradict his valorisation of female cinema-goers by reference to his own telling conclusion.


Harris is brilliant in his analysis of how marketers have steered film-making away from the perils of originality. There never was any point in making a good film that no one would want to go see (Rabbit Hole) but the marketers we have today do seem to be exceptionally lazy in being unwilling to sell a good film unless it’s a brand i.e. someone else has already done all the hard work of creating and marketing something. Harris says no one would green-light an Inception but everyone would green-light an Inception 2, because that would be a brand. Intriguingly Mark Kermode has raised the idea that every blockbuster will eventually make a profit these days, no matter how catastrophic the reception of the film at the box-office, via DVD, games, merchandise and TV rights. Marketers can’t secure a film favourable reviews, but they can turn up the white noise to such an unbearable extent that you see the film just to get the unpleasant task over with it, and, more than likely, so that you can join ‘The Conversation’ criticising it. Mission Accomplished: you’ve just green-lit a sequel to a film you didn’t like, which you knew you wouldn’t like it, but paid into anyway.

I’m sick and tired of the condemnation teenage males receive for ‘destroying cinema’. Apparently they lack “taste and discernment”, which all women possess; which is what makes women such an exhausting proposition to sell to, although Harris puts his case in more grossly anatomical terms. A good exercise with statements like this is to reverse the gender and see if it then strikes you as sexist. It does. The assumption is not that a female audience offers a complementary or an equivalent but neglected taste, but a superior taste. (This also applies to every article claiming that women bankers would have avoided the credit crunch) This reverse sexism is absurd, because of Harris’ own telling conclusion – audiences get what they deserve. Female audiences are not composed entirely of Chekhovians interested only in human stories told well. Men don’t willingly shell out cash to see every bloody Jennifer Aniston or Sarah Jessica Parker atrocity film; they’re dragged to them by their girlfriends… Writing a screenplay, no matter how formulaic takes time and isn’t easy; it’s bloody hard work, even if like John Sayles you’ve got it down to relentlessly cranking out 10 pages a day of a pass when you’re working on formulaic mainstream rubbish for gas money. I think that an awful lot of what comes out in Hollywood these days in particular genres, especially romantic comedy, really is first draft material. Not the real first draft obviously, but the first draft you let people see, where the structure is sound as a bell but it’s lacking a bit of polish in the dialogue, a bit of pizzazz in the action. It’s solid, but you wouldn’t want to start shooting it. But here’s the thing, adding polish and pizzazz will take even more time and effort, and if it’s not necessary why bother? If the audience can’t tell the difference between His Girl Friday and The Bounty Hunter, then there’s no reason to go to the extra effort of writing His Girl Friday for them. Harris dismisses young men as, in studio thinking, idiots, who’ll watch “anything that’s put in front of them as long as it’s spiked with the proper set of stimulants.” Well that statement is equally devastating when applied to a female audience willing to watch romantic comedies that are neither romantic nor comedic nor original. Female audiences get the films they deserve – badly written formulaic crap.

Chick-flicks don’t have to be bad. Romantic comedy as a genre can boast some of the all-time classics, including a large chunk of Frank Capra’s back catalogue, as well as laugh-fests by Howard Hawks, and Woody Allen and Rob Reiner at their very best. But the logic of Harris’ conclusion is impeccable. As President Bartlett put it, “Decisions are made by those who show up”, and if you are happy to see The Accidental Husband or PS I Love You then there’s no point in going to the extra effort of writing Definitely Maybe or The Jane Austen Book Club for you. The problem here is one of writing-by-numbers. If the marketers see all the ingredients attached to a movie then they can sell it in their accustomed manner. It really doesn’t matter to them whether the combination of ingredients is producing on this occasion a cordon bleu or a takeaway meal. In this light the increasingly formulaic nature of Hollywood is easily explained but it’s becoming a terrible burden on audiences. At the moment we’re all like jaded restaurant critics reviewing the same bloody dish over and over again; the only things that spark our interest are new ingredients (wonderful supporting performances in a rom-com, two original touches in a comic-book movie), or a perfect rendition of the dish (so that you forget The Dark Knight has a solid three-act structure). Steve McQueen showed with Hunger that a loose sense of beginning, middle and end is really all you need to inject dramatic momentum into incredibly oblique material. Tarantino has repeatedly shown that ‘a beginning, middle and end but not necessarily in that order’, works fine with mainstream audiences. So why does every Hollywood film lately feel like it’s been written by a super-computer programmed with the Three-Act structure and every cliché in the book for bringing it to life, and with a default setting of regarding all cinemagoers as dribbling troglodytes? Every super-hero movie is an origin story. Did Philip Marlowe need an origin story for Bogie to play him in The Big Sleep? Harris asks what we can do about this when we’re to blame by watching films on DVDs rather than putting up with anti-social jerks by watching them in cinemas? Well, the answer is go see the movies that you actually want to see – a new movie by a writer or director whose work you like, a concept that sounds clever, a performance that looks good. Avoid everything that looks like reheated boil in the bag clichés, and never accept that you have to pay into an obnoxious film to somehow ‘earn’ the right to dismiss it. The dream factory can only make the product you want if you tell it exactly what you want…

Every time the lights go down in Savoy screen 1 and the curtains part, I think ‘Entertain me’. My fervent wish of late is that Hollywood would live up to my new request, ‘Surprise me’…

October 6, 2009

Love Happens

This film is a real oddity. Aaron Eckhart, Martin Sheen and Zodiac’s John Carroll Lynch all seem to think they’re in a serious drama about bereavement and grieving. Everyone else thinks they’re in a sappy rom-com…

The always charismatic Eckhart plays Burke Ryan, a psychologist who has moved from writing practical newspaper columns to an uneasy fame conducting workshops to deal with bereavement on the back of his best-selling book A-Okay (complete with inane hand symbol) about his recovery from the impact of his wife’s violent death at his side in a car-crash. While (against his better judgement) conducting a workshop in Seattle he encounters Manic Pixie Dream Girl,  sorry,  I meant florist, Eloise (Jennifer Aniston), who likes scribbling obscure words like Quidnunc in odd places in hotels. Eloise has a wonderful moment where she pretends to be deaf to avoid Burke’s advances but this film is not a romantic comedy, the only laughs come from Eckhart doing slapstick with a parrot. Instead, though Judy Greer and Dan Fogler give it their all as the archetypal best friends of the leads, this is that rare beast, a romantic drama.

Co-writer/director Brandon Camp started work on this film after his mother’s death, and there is a strong authenticity to much of the material, which he deserves great credit for tackling. Danny Boyle noted in his Sunshine commentary that cinema’s forward momentum makes it nearly impossible to grieve for a character, so this film is one of the very few you will see in mainstream cinema seriously tackling loss. Eckhart has a phenomenal scene when his character is ambushed at the end of one of the first workshop sessions by his father-in-law (Sheen) who lambasts him for exploiting the death of his daughter. Eckhart has no dialogue – we simply watch his completely silent reaction as the façade of confidence crumbles. Following this Burke makes it his mission to save ex-contractor Walter (Lynch) from his cul-de-sac of guilt over his young son’s death on a building site. Some of these scenes are rom-com structural tropes, but filled with such dramatic sizzle that they actually make an impression. But this tension between form and content is never satisfactorily resolved, even a climactic scene between Eckhart and Sheen becomes slightly suspect when obligatory romantic sappiness bleeds into it. There are also cameos by NCIS star Sasha Alexander as a photographer and Joe (charisma to burn) Anderson as Aniston’s unfaithful musician boyfriend that are bizarrely pointless.

This should be the kind of brainless fluff like The Core and No Reservations that Eckhart does to make money (without exercising his brain) to subsidise LaBute plays and films like Thank You For Smoking. Instead it’s a strange beast. Saddled with rom-com clichés and stranded half-way between romantic drama and serious drama it bends its formal structures to breaking point without quite achieving the heights that should come from such a daring imposition of challenging material in a trifling genre. A decent film, just a very confused one.

2.5/5

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