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.

November 13, 2014

The Drop

Bullhead director Michael R Roskam makes his Hollywood debut with a slow-burning crime thriller featuring James Gandolfini’s final film performance.

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Bob (Tom Hardy) is a slow-moving soft-spoken Brooklyn lug who works as a bartender for Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), who is, to people’s permanent surprise, actually Bob’s cousin. But while the sign over the door says ‘Cousin Marv’s’ really the cousins work for the scary Chechen mob brothers Chovka (Michael Aronov) and Andre (Morgan Spector), who use it as a drop for cash from their other operations. When someone is crazy enough to rip off the drop-box Bob and Marv find themselves under pressure from Chovka to recover the stolen money. Complicating matters further for Bob is his finding of an abandoned abused dog, which leads to a tentative romance with Nadia (Noomi Rapace). It also leads to harassment from neighbourhood psycho Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), the suspected killer in a cold case that has Det. Torres (John Ortiz) circling…

Having provided the source material for Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and Shutter Island, novelist Dennis Lehane finally pens his first feature screenplay (after writing episodes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) expanding his own short story ‘Animal Rescue’. This film has Lehane DNA: a palpable sense of blue-collar community, characters with lives beyond the plot-points; especially Marv’s tetchy house-sharing with his long-suffering sister Dottie (Ann Dowd); a doom-laden sense of horrors to come. But, somewhat inexplicably, it also has large amounts of Dead Man Down and Drive in its make-up. Noomi Rapace once again appears bearing scars of past traumas and manipulates a taciturn anti-hero. Shocking violence in a good cause is subverted in the best Winding Refn manner, and then sort of subverted back… There’s even a regrettable Equilibrium flashback in the instantly humanising effect of a puppy.

Roskam directs all this with some aplomb, with an emphasis on facial close-ups and gritty exteriors. Ortiz and Schoenaerts shine in support as the good and evil stalking around the central trio, with Schoenaerts in particular conveying tremendous menace and instability. An early scene where the Chechens unveil some grisly handiwork as a visual pep-talk serves up the steak that allows the film to largely unnerve on sizzle till its finale, to appropriate Stephen King’s analysis of Psycho, and Roskam lets the tension build slowly as Bob and Marv try and chase up some money only to find that events are spiralling out of control. Lehane holds back mightily on letting us inside Bob’s head, or letting us know what Det. Romsey (Elizabeth Rodriguze) is up to, as if he’s addicted to Shutter Island’s method of revelations through outrageous misdirection.

James Gandolfini’s last performance mixes resignation and frustration, and the film that houses it is a curious mixture of overly familiar elements and escalating suspense anchored by Hardy’s lumbering, kindly, but enigmatically unknowable presence.

3/5

May 18, 2011

Scream on the Rocks

I was listening to ‘Pure Shores’ while unsuccessfully trying to find someone else excited about seeing Scream 4 a few weeks ago, and it led to these musings on how something can be all-conquering, then just disappear…

I was surprised that no one I knew was excited about a new Scream film, given that Kevin Williamson had returned to writing duties, and has lately been writing wonderful (cliff-hanger a minute, major twist every episode) dark popcorn for The Vampire Diaries. 11 years though is a long time… The Beach was released in February 2000 and, this being in prehistory when MTV not only played music but played certain videos on constant rotation, its imagery penetrated deep into people who never saw the film courtesy of All Saints’ video for the sublime ‘Pure Shores’ incorporating an awful lot of clips from Danny Boyle’s film. 11 years ago I finally saw Scream on TV and then Scream 3 in the cinema in quick succession and never got round to watching The Beach till 2003. It’s odd to think that these films, which were all pervasive at the time, seem to have been more or less forgotten. In the case of Danny Boyle his belated and ill-advised entrance to major Hollywood movies has been completely forgotten because of a couple of belting truly Alex Garland scripted movies since, and an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. The Beach also represented after the American Psycho debacle DiCaprio’s attempt to make a post-Titanic film that proved he could act. He’s long since been able to point to his Scorsese collection, and latterly Revolutionary Road and Inception, so The Beach is also a footnote for him.

But why has Scream fallen so low in popular esteem that its belated sequel could so utterly flop? Perhaps Scream has been a victim of its own success. It brought forth a wave of self-conscious horror films like Final Destination where good jokes were as important as scary shocks, and the audience and film-makers continually winked at each other regarding clichéd conventions of horror cinema that could still be exploited to make you jump in your seat, but only if that was followed by a good pay-off line. That arguably brought forth a counter-wave, the infamous torture porn of Saw, Hostel and Wolf Creek, where the film-makers grabbed the audience by the throat, demanded they stop winking, stop turning away, look at this horror, be horrified, and start screaming now… Now it seems to safe to declare torture porn more or less dead, we seem to be stuck in a field of shlock, Piranha 3-D, the everpresent efficient teen horror, My Bloody Valentine, and nouvea 70s viciousness in the form of remakes, Last House on the Left, and nasty originals, Eden Lake. In that landscape where torture porn seems to have permanently upped the acceptable ante for both gore and viciousness the very concept of a Scream 4 is an anomaly if not an embarrassment.

I only hoped that Scream 4 might be as good as Scream 2, but truthfully it’s more like Scream 3, the one Williamson didn’t write – an efficient film with flashes of inspiration. There are wonderful moments throughout, not least Courteney Cox muttering that a massacre must take place at a Stab marathon, “what could be more meta?”; a confused David Arquette asks what that means, to which she replies “I don’t know, it’s just some word I heard the kids using.” Scream was a great film because it was original, the cold open of Scream 4 with its nods to how Scream 2 introduced Stab, a film of the events of Scream, goes far too far in alienating the audience with postmodern meta-nonsense at the expense of emotional engagement. When you have not one, not two, but three different sets of TV stars (from, deep breath, 90210, Privileged, Veronica Mars, True Blood, oh forget it) all enacting the same basic scenario with commentary on the predictability of said scenario, mixed with snipes at torture porn, it’s time to return to basics. But the basics aren’t easy. The motive of the Ghostface Killer is a huge problem. Each sequel has tied itself in ever more preposterous knots regarding motivation, and Scream 4 obeys that rule of sequels. An even greater problem is the split focus caused by the bizarre notion the film persistently voices about itself being a remake rather than a sequel. The ‘new’ versions of original characters Billy Loomis, Randy and Stu don’t work at all because they are severely underwritten, while the beloved original characters aren’t given enough screen-time either. Hayden Panetierre and Emma Roberts are the only actors of the new young cast given enough material to really make an impression, and a good deal of this is purely due to their skills rather than the script. Roberts in particular is not afraid to be shown in a far colder light emotionally than you can imagine her aunt ever being willing to play, and her relationship with screen cousin Neve Campbell powers the film.

And then, if you’re me, you realise something with a shock while watching – Adam Brody isn’t going to step up to the plate in the third act and do something, his minor supporting role is just that; he has been totally forgotten. How terrifyingly forgotten The OC has become. Only 4 years after it finished its 4 season run which was captivating and hilarious and spawned a whole set of music, books, comics, styles and clichés, Seth Cohen himself, Adam Brody, can’t seem to get good parts anymore outside of Jason Reitman enabled cameos. Josh Schwartz is now the guy who co-created Gossip Girl or Chuck. He’s never thought of as the youngest creator of a primetime network show which was what The OC made him. And so it is that Kevin Williamson is now the co-creator of The Vampire Diaries not the wunderkind behind Scream or even Dawson’s Creek. Glory is fleeting…

December 22, 2010

Spielberg’s Swansong

Steven Spielberg is now 64 years old. Can he buck the tradition of age withering great directors?

Alfred Hitchcock made 5 films after he turned 64 but none of them equalled his achievements in his previous decade (Rear Window to The Birds). Billy Wilder made only 4 films after he turned 64 and only two are remembered, as curios. Martin Scorsese is heading down that cul-de-sac with follies like Shutter Island and The Cabinet Imaginarium Invention of Dr Caligari Parnassus Hugo Cabaret 3-D. Indeed Quentin Tarantino, blithely ignoring Antonioni’s last work, equated ageing directors’ loss of creative drive with impotence… Spielberg had a decade to rival Hitchcock’s autumnal golden spell, in quantity if not quality, with A.I., Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Munich, and Indiana Jones 4. Some were harshly judged and will grow in stature. Others will attract more opprobrium as people fully digest their awful finales.

A.I. has some chilling sequences but overall it is a disastrous mess, but for the opposite reason than what is usually cited. It is awful because it is too in thrall to Stanley Kubrick’s aesthetic of inhuman detachment, which negates Spielberg’s greatest gift. Minority Report is a thrilling, dark vision of Philip K Dick’s paranoia and philosophical conundrums with uniformly excellent acting and effects, but is undone by its prolonged third act, which resists ending on a typical Dick moment and instead shoe-horns in multiple happy endings. Con-man ‘comedy’ Catch Me If You Can was lauded, bafflingly so, but its lustre has faded and its simplistic psychology and deeply uneven tone will only hasten that decline. The Terminal by contrast only grows as, like Field of Dreams, it’s a script that runs down cul-de-sacs before continually changing direction, and manages to undercut rom-com clichés while achieving a warm conclusion. War of the Worlds re-staged the traumas of 9/11 in a number of bravura sequences including an unbearably suspenseful manhunt by Martians in the basement, but its dubious ethics and inane HG Wells’ ending remain flaws. Munich was punctuated by a number of viscerally taut action sequences but was undone by Tony Kushner’s reluctance to devote dialogue to the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the infamous juxtaposition of Eric Bana and the terrorists’ slaughter simultaneously climaxing. Indiana Jones 4 has been pointlessly vilified. It zips along breathlessly for a superb first act and there’s an awful lot of fun to be had with the Amazon action sequences and new villain Col. Spalko. Lucas’ Maguffin disappoints. Epically…

Spielberg starts the decade with a trio of projects. Liam Neeson has regrettably been ditched from the long-gestating Lincoln biopic in favour of Daniel Day-Lewis, and apparently the script is now based on 2008’s book of the moment Team of Rivals. Will it be as magisterial as Schindler’s List even without Neeson, or as boring as his other film showcasing an American President, Amistad? More importantly does the fact that Spielberg’s filmed his Tintin instalment and West End favourite The War-Horse (with a 5th Indiana Jones movie in development) indicate a willingness to avoid ‘important’ projects in favour of ‘mere’ entertainments? I subscribe to Mark Kermode’s view that critics have it precisely wrong and that Spielberg, in listening to them, has self-defeatingly attempted ‘big, important pictures that will win Academy Awards and be taken seriously dammit!’, resulting in disastrous messes, Munich, or utterly forgotten movies, The Colour Purple. Spielberg in directing popcorn films with sublime skill exploits, not just his God-given talents but, in connecting with people’s hearts rather than their minds, the true nature of the medium to its utmost.

Jean-Luc Godard may complain that Spielberg is sentimental but so was Dickens, and the attempt by one school of critics to demote Dickens in favour of George Eliot has demonstrably failed; people still quote his dialogue, reference his characters, and can sum up a whole world by uttering the word Dickensian, whereas George Eliot’s first name must always be included to avoid confusion with old possum himself TS Eliot. Spielberg’s unlikely friendship and collaboration with Stanley Kubrick has only highlighted an existing aesthetic contrast that the Biskind critics liked to sharpen their claws on, invariably to Spielberg’s disadvantage, but cinema is an emotional medium. If you want to connect with people’s minds write a novel or a play, but if you want to toy with the world’s biggest train-set to make crowds of people laugh, cry, jump out of their seats, or sit rigidly with their hearts racing, then cinema is what you want. And for that reason Spielberg’s swansong may decide his critical reputation: he can go out as the supreme entertainer or an intermittent auteur.

All hail the greatest living American film director! Talking Movies hopes he goes out unashamedly entertaining us as he has for forty years.

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.

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