Talking Movies

September 24, 2018

From the Archives: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

Another expedition into the pre-Talking Movies archives returns carrying an unloved comedy.

Simon Pegg attempts to break America by air-brushing everything that made him loveable in the first place and headlining an unfunny, utterly bland rom-com. Wait, did I type that or just think that?

Ah, meta-textual humour. Such honesty is after all the main reason for the social and professional failures of Pegg’s character Sidney Young. This is based on the book by one time Vanity Fair writer Toby Young who made a spectacular ass of himself during a brief sojourn with that esteemed publication. His screen equivalent writes snippy pieces about celebrities for his own magazine The Postmodern Review before getting the call to head to NYC. These opening 10 minutes set in Britain are the most charming of the film and they’re not even especially funny. It is merely comforting to see Pegg among familiar faces like The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Perkins before he jets off to NYC to work for Jeff Bridge’s monstrous editor Clayton Harding. It oddly parallels Pegg’s own journey from Channel 4’s sublime sitcom Spaced to this anaemic Hollywood film.

Pegg writes comedy for a living. He must know this film doesn’t work because it simply isn’t funny. This film feels like it was hit by the writers’ strike and they had to begin production with the version of the script that the script doctor hadn’t added the jokes to yet… Even worse it’s not even his type of humour, the pop reference laden whimsical absurdity of Spaced and Hot Fuzz is replaced with a string of embarrassing encounters that one would think more obviously suited to Ricky Gervais’s style. Pegg does his best with the material he’s given but far too many scenes fall flat.

The supporting cast assembled is mightily impressive except that they have nothing to work with. Scene-stealer extraordinaire Danny Huston does his best as Sidney’s overbearing section editor and Gillian Anderson is nicely glacial as a publicist but Bridges looks all at sea as the one time rebel now conformist editor. Megan Fox does her best breathy Marilyn Monroe take off but no comedic gold is mined, a la Tropic Thunder’s fake trailers, from the truly preposterous romantic flick involving a young Mother Theresa that is generating Oscar buzz for her character. Fox is only there to be, well…a fox, so it’s amazing that it is Kirsten Dunst’s long-suffering writer who steals both the audience’s hearts and the film, and I say this as someone who took most of 2007 to get over Sam Raimi re-shooting the end of Spider-Man 3 to leave Dunst’s infuriating MJ alive.

There is only one reason to see this film – watched after a double bill of Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money it will convince you that 1/4 of NYC’s hottest ladies used to be guys. Think on that in the two hours of your life I’ve stopped you squandering.

1/5

Advertisements

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.

download

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.

death_star_trench

 

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.

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…

April 29, 2009

Wolverine

After the fiasco that was X-3 it’s nice to report that Wolverine is a relatively inoffensive addition to the X-Men franchise, although well below the standard of X-Men never mind X-2.

The film opens brilliantly with a startling credits sequence in which Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) fight in the American army from the Civil War right up to Vietnam, taking full advantage of their healing abilities and animalistic claws and strength. However as Victor becomes psychotic Logan becomes disillusioned with their military mutant unit led by Major William Stryker (Danny Huston). Retreating to the wilds of Canada the film begins a heroic use of cliché above and beyond the call of duty as Logan becomes a lumberjack and settles down with his girlfriend Kayla. This will never do, we need to get our reluctant hero into the second act for action set-pieces, so insert the relevant names and events into this universally applicable Hollywood scene:

‘The Man’ arrives and urges ‘Our Hero’ to come back and do ‘That Thing’.

“No, I’ll never do ‘That Thing’. I’ve built ‘A New Life’ for myself here”

“This isn’t you, ‘Hero’, ‘That Thing’ is the real you. Forget our quarrel and think about the ‘Others in Peril’”.

“It’s your fault they’re in peril, ‘You fix it’”.

Exit ‘The Man’.

Then ‘Something Awful Happens’ and ‘Our Hero’ realises it was because he was being ‘Selfish’ so he joins ‘The Man’ to do…‘That Thing’.

It’s surprising that Gavin Hood, director of acclaimed South African drama Tsotsi, sacrifices depth for such clichés. There are times when this film resembles a bad episode of Smallville, especially a bizarre sequence that begins when Wolverine streaks in front of a truck driven by what appears to be Jonathan and Martha Kent. We’re introduced to a rake of characters who are killed off almost at random, but we don’t care about their deaths because the unwieldy cast is so badly under-used. Only Danny Huston, who delivers another charismatic turn as Stryker, manages to make an impression. Liev Schreiber is mis-cast as Victor, relying on a trench-coat to create menace when co-star Kevin Durand is the one with the appropriately intimidating physique, while Gambit’s long awaited appearance is tragically underwritten.

Wolverine has a number of amusing moments and clever references to the comics, and, of the two plot twists, the second is actually quite clever, but it’s too little too late and in any case is ruined by the ever audible creaking of the plot mechanics. Above all the film suffers from prequelitis. We know the characters that survive into the X-Men films which removes any tension from scenes involving them in peril. One lengthy and allegedly tense sequence already appeared in X-2 and as Logan and Victor are equally matched and can’t die anyway their various clashes are pointless. Unveiling Deadpool with minutes to go smacks of desperation (and is even more of a waste than Venom in Spider-Man 3) and his horrific appearance is dwarfed by a cameo which is either CGI enhanced make-up or total CGI but terrifyingly it’s hard to tell which…

Hugh Jackman whoops it up as Wolverine but truthfully comics great Mark Millar has written more interesting Wolverine stories than this in his sleep. A missed opportunity.

2.5/5

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.