Tag: opinion

Optimism in the Face of Movie Culture

There’s a certain feeling that has come to pervade the movie-going culture, especially those that care about movies to a larger-than-normal degree. It’s a constant, oppressive pessimism. Every year we are treated to a cycle of horribleness, first the dumping grounds of the winter months where movies that a too crappy to live go to make the most money possible because somebody has to win the weekend. Then there’s the beginning of the summer movie season where all the big money blockbusters start appearing, but not really the good stuff yet because the studios are afraid they might find themselves accidentally releasing the film in those dumping grounds. Yet they continue to push the envelope, with Jack the Giant Slayer coming on the first day of March this year. After those early blockbusters we kick into the full summer swing, a pool now filled with unnecessary sequels to dumb comedies and the third, fourth, fifth entry into a superhero series. Or, even worse, a reboot of a superhero series that only ended 6 years ago. Around August time we slip into a mini slump where all the movies that were made for June and July but turned out too crappy get thrown to the wolves. In September we might see a studio trying to play the Oscar game a little earlier than everybody else, and it’ll probably be a really popular movie because the public is starved for any semblance of intelligence after a season of explosions and spandex. And then October is filled with remakes and sequels of horror films from the eighties or Asia. It’s the month of jump scares, which is all Hollywood remembers how to do in the world of horror. After that we’ve entered Oscarama, the time of year when BIG IMPORTANT FILMS are released and usually have something to do with somebody being oppressed and fighting back or taking it in a dignified manner. This can include racism or the Holocaust or natural disasters. There’s also the counterprogramming of a super violent film for all the teenaged boys to see while the rest of their family goes to some PG13 schmaltz-fest. And let’s not forget the final big-budget action film of the year, which has pretensions of Oscar hopes but will tell everybody that it just wants to entertain. These will make the most money of the year because everybody will just want to escape their families for 3 or so hours (these movies are always 3 hours long). So that’s, the movie release schedule for a year, after which we start at the beginning again but everything’s just a little worse than it was last year. Everybody knows that this was the worst year for film in the last 5 or so, if not more. Just look at all the crap that was released on a consistent basis. Was there even one movie that would stand up to something like The Godfather or Jaws?

Of course, not everybody will say all of these things. Most harbor only one or two of these thoughts in their movie-addled mind. Yeah, we have too many superhero movies and there hasn’t been a good horror movie since The Sixth Sense. Or look at all those Oscar-bait movies that exist solely to garner awards from an out of touch Academy and, hey, the only thing worse than Oscar season is post-Oscar season. It begins to feel like movie buffs aren’t really fans of movies anymore. They’ve reached a point where everything is predictable, from the release schedule to the movies themselves. Trailers show everything, there’s no point in even seeing the film anymore. Everything Hollywood does is just for the money, and most independent movies are just jumbles of quirks tossed into a juicer and puréed for easy consumption. Where are all the original stories? Everything is just a copy of something else. Creativity has gone down the drain and there’s no saving it.

Well, I’m calling bull. I’m tired of pessimism and cynicism in my favorite hobby. Since when does everything have to be amazing for us as a people to say it’s not horrible? Is anything I wrote in the first paragraph entirely wrong? No, of course not. There are movies that fit into each and every one of those molds every year and that will never change. But if I’m going to devote much of my free time to movies (and I will, because they have the capacity to be awesome) I’m just going to ignore those by-the-numbers films. Last year we saw such crap as Battleship and Silent Hill 2 and God Bless America. I watched all of those films and spent a bit of time complaining about how terrible they are, but will they be thing films that last, the one’s that stand out in our memory of 2012? Or, to put it another way, will anybody really remember Mama from this year. I saw it in theaters and I’ve already forgotten it. What has stuck with me is the Evil Dead remake. It proves at least two of the generalizations wrong by being a movie released in that period between the winter doldrums and summer blockbuster and a remake/sequel/reboot of a beloved horror franchise from the eighties. And it doesn’t rely on jump scares. What it does rely on is an interesting parallel between body horror and drug addiction/withdrawal which leads to a literal rebirth in a torrent of blood. It’s nuts, all out gore and grime and I loved it. So yeah, Hollywood can make good movies, even movies that fit into those categories that generally produce crappy films will sometimes score a nice little floater in the lane, if not a monstrous slam dunk. Things don’t have to be amazing to be not-horrible, they just have to not be horrible. That’s a pretty low bar to reach, and as a fan of movies I’ll always hope for a film to clear it rather than bonk its head. The movie buff culture has become a den of inequity where it’s cool to point out why a movie might be bad. I’d rather point out why a movie might be great. The worst that could happen is I’m wrong and Man of Steel doesn’t lift itself above a hit-or-miss director’s other works. I know it’ll look cool and have Michael Shannon yelling things. That’s enough to get me in the door. Optimism isn’t cool, but it should be. It’s more fun. Less angry. In the eternal words of Ricky Rubio:

The Long “S” Stupid: Embracing the shock of The Cabin in the Woods and other things

“To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?” – A Fish Called Wanda

It happened again. It haunts me. Family members do it. Friends do it. Random audience members do it. And whenever they do it I seethe. It’s the thing that makes me the most angry and I hate it. It’s the Long “S” Stupid. That sibilant that expresses just how contemptuous the speaker is of the subject. “This is SSsssssstupid,” they’ll say, and I’ll know that they’ve checked out. Something has turned them off and they’ll never recover again. I first noticed it when I was watching an episode of Community with my family, and at some point, likely one of the more slapstick-y points, my dad just said “SSSssssstupid.” But there’s a problem. The subject, the SSSsssssstupid thing, is almost never actually stupid. It’s weird, sure. It’s different, it catches you off guard and it challenges you, but it is rarely actually stupid.

I most recently heard the Long “S” Stupid in the theater, watching The Cabin in the Woods. That is a film that is different from a lot of the horror that is popular today, and it’s even different from the movie that the marketing told you it’d be. If you went to the movie expecting a slash-fest you’re in for a shock. Firstly, it’s a comedy as much (or more than) it is a horror film, an element that was absent from most of the advertising of the film. Horror is a genre that generally takes itself seriously – too seriously, often (Saw) – and an audience that goes to a movie called The Cabin in the Woods won’t be expecting to laugh a lot. My audience didn’t crack up until a good 15 minutes into the movie, long after the first joke flew (that happened in the first few seconds of the film). After the dam burst they were looser and quicker to laugh, which was great, but those first 15 minutes also contained some great jokes that were missed because the audience wasn’t even looking for the film to be funny. This is, however, just setting the table for the Long “S” Stupid.

The Cabin in the Woods is a movie that has a few surprises in store for it’s audience. I won’t go into much detail here but if you want to go in completely unsoiled by spoilers you might want to skip on to the next paragraph and assume that I made excellent and salient points about everything. Ok, here we go. The first surprise happens with the first shot of the film, showing us that there’s more going on in this movie than in your typical horror flick. It’s hinted at in the trailers, so it’s not a total surprise, but the full story is a little more in-depth than what you might expect. A lot of good horror works on a psychological level as well as a visceral level, so it’s not unheard of that there’d be more than just slashing, but the past few years have shown that the smart horror film is not the most popular genre. I’ll point again to the Saw franchise. The first film is pretty smart, but each successive sequel got dumber and dumber, raking in more and more money as they did so. When The Cabin in the Woods twists even further and the characters begin to realize what’s going on there’s a point where you’ll either go with it or jump off the train. It happens in an elevator and we get a peek at what’s to come. It was at this point where a member of my audience announced that, “This movie is SSSsssssstupid.”

Of course, that moment was the point where the film solidified into my favorite of the year so far, and a potential top 100 film. So what is it about those Long “S” Stupid moments that turns some off and energizes others into love? It seems, in my experience, like some people just don’t want to go exploring with their entertainment. We’ve become so entrenched in specific forms and expectations that we can practically predict an entire movie from a two-minute trailer or know what’s going to happen in a TV episode within the first five minutes. When those movies and TV shows then confound our expectations and do something different we can have one of those two reactions, embrace or reject. Neither is inherently better than the other, both are completely valid reactions. But if you have uttered the Long “S” Stupid at something, ask yourself why. Why are you reacting that way to that piece of media? What, exactly, is stupid about it? Is there a different way to see it? Could it maybe be silly instead of stupid (I’d call both of my examples, Community and The Cabin in the Woods, stupendously silly and I love that about them)? Could it just be different from what you were expecting? Don’t fear difference! Embrace it! Love it!

Make a Movie, Dammit!

Ridley Scott on the set of Blade Runner

It’s art. Anything is anything – Ron Swanson, Parks and Recreation

My good internet friend, Corey Atad, just posted a blog entry about what he wants from a movie. It’s called Tell Me a Story, Dammit! and I think you can tell what he’s talking about from the title of the post but you should go read it anyways because it makes some good points. Movies have been about storytelling for most of their existence. They’re a medium that does work particularly well to get a story to the viewer. The combination of sight and sound and motion makes a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster of books and music and photography. All of those mediums (media?) can be used to tell a story, though that is not a requirement of them. Music must have notes, books must have words, and photography must have images, and these elements are usually employed to tell a story. But must they? And must movies tell a story?

If you’re reading this you’ll probably agree with my statement that film is an art. It’s a way for an artist – or several artists – to get their point-of-view to you, the audience. Generally, that happens through a combination of the story the movie is telling, the words used to tell it, and the visuals and sounds that accompany the words and the story. But only one of these elements are essential to film as an art form. Take away one and the others remain to carry the slack. Film started as a silent medium, where the sounds were provided in-house and therefore not a permanent part of the experience. Each version of the film was different because the accompaniment was provided by a different musician and therefore the audio element cannot be taken as a a part of the art at that point. After sound became a standard feature it has stuck around, though this year’s silent film The Artist has been getting a lot of buzz. Maybe it will revive the silent film as a cultural force, though that’s probably just wishful thinking on our part.

Take Fantasia as an example of a film that doesn’t use words to get its point across to the viewer. Sure, there are a few bits of dialogue in the interstitial element where the conductor sets up the next section of the film, but those could just as easily be cut out of the film and we’d still understand exactly what’s happening in the film. Dinosaurs and demons are pretty self-explanatory.

So that leaves us with a story and visuals as the remaining elements of film. I think you might be able to guess which isn’t essential in my estimation. Almost all movies have a story. This is undeniable. I can’t think of a movie that lacks a story, save for experimental films like the ones Corey uses in his article. There are movies that are made of visuals and sounds and nothing else. Pretty colors on a screen do not tell a story. But they do present a point of view, a way of seeing the world. They must, because they are an artist making a work of art. That’s the whole point. They need not wrap their worldview around a story. And it is still a film. It’s still light captured and then projected in quick sequence. That’s film. That’s movies.

In the end, I’d twist Corey’s words a bit. I think movie makers owe us movies that mean something. Movies that share with us their point of view so we can see if ours is changed or affirmed. So we can understand a different way to see the world. So we can experience different things. It should have images that move, even if they are simply juxtapositions of stills – I’m looking at you, La Jetée – and anything else is icing on the cake. Maybe all of the movies I like have stories in them. Maybe most have a dedicated soundtrack and words. But I’m not going to limit the medium and say that they must include those elements. What if the next movie to enter my Top 100 List is a silent, wordless, characterless, storyless sequence of pictures? What if we missed out on the greatest film of all time because we demanded that all movies have a story? Wouldn’t that be sad.

“Some thought required” or, The difference between a trailer and a movie

 

Advertising is legalized lying – H. G. Wells

The trailer for the film adaptation of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close came out earlier this week. The book on which the film is based is one of my favorite books of all time, and the prospect of translating the book to film is an interesting one. The book can be melodramatic and quirky, two words that strike fear into the hearts of many “serious” moviegoers. The people that know a lot about movies and have strong opinions on how they should and should not work. The people that write and read film blogs. The people that turn their nose up at the Oscars and watch them seemingly only to criticize how misguided they are. These people watched the trailer and instantly decided that the film was made to win Oscars and can therefore not be any good. But that’s probably the dumbest thing you can do when it comes to art.

The A.V. Club’s little write-up on the trailer hits all of the critical points here. The director has been nominated for Oscars before, the screenwriter has won an Oscar, and both of the big name stars have won an Oscar. And then they outline the plot in it’s most basic terms, son loses father, finds key, looks for lock. They mention how the WWII subplot seemingly exists to hit that Oscar demographic, building on the 9/11 plotline. And yes, all of these things have won Oscars in some way before, except for 9/11 which only has United 93’s two nominations to it’s pedigree, though we’ll have to excuse that for the relatively short distance between the event and today. If you want to call the film out for having people write and direct and star in it I guess I can’t stop you.

But none of this addresses the actual trailer. And here’s the thing, the trailer isn’t great. It, like the A.V. Club article, only hits the big notes and throws some quirk in there for good measure. It shows none of the WWII plot. It doesn’t show the bulk of the film other than in some quick montage in the middle. It’s really all setup. What it does show is a lot of Tom Hanks, who plays the father that dies on 9/11. A good bit of Hank’s performance is likely captured in this trailer. There’s only a scene or two that isn’t captured here in some way. The trailer plays him up, though, because he’s a big star. And that’s ok, because the one thing we must remember as intelligent filmgoers is that trailers exist to sell the film to the widest group possible. They’re usually not created by the filmmakers and they often use scenes that don’t even end up in the final film. Trailers are not movies, they’re advertisement. They distort the real product into a quick, easily digestible chunk that rarely delves into anything beyond a broad theme or story outline. There are exceptions, of course, Magnolia’s trailer, below, was cut by Paul Thomas Anderson, who also filmed shots specifically for the trailer. But the majority of movie trailers are handled by outside companies that get footage and assemble it into the most basic commercial they can.

When I was a kid I watched a lot of TV, cartoons and the like. All of the commercials were for toys, and most of those commercials came with disclaimers that said, “Real cooking time 10-12 minutes” or, “Some assembly required.” I think movie trailers should take a clue from these toy commercials and start running a little text at the bottom, warning the people watching that these 2 minutes are not necessarily indicative of the full 2 hour experience. And then they can have that guy come on at the end and say things like “Some thought required” to warn us that movies aren’t and shouldn’t be so quickly analyzed and dismissed. Trailers don’t have a great record of accuracy, and you’d think that us “serious” movie people would remember that, but we don’t. Every year there are trailers that don’t make their movies look any good and every year there are some movies with horrible trailers that end up being really great. We should remember that only the movie is the movie, and everything else is meaningless

What’s a flop, anyways? Fright Night and film finances

“What’s worth doing is worth doing for money.” – Wall Street

I love to watch movies. There’s a lot to get out of the act of watching a movie, from the anticipation to the actual viewing experience to the discussion afterward with fiends and other movie buffs. There’s a lot to talk about, when it comes to movies, too. You can talk about the directing, the themes, the acting, the story, anything, really. But there’s one part of movie discussion that I will never understand: the money. With so many movies released every week there will be some that aren’t successful at the box office. These failures are inevitably called a flop and are then summarily dismissed by the people that pay attention to such things. But what does a flop mean, exactly? Why are some of us so obsessed with the monetary aspect of movie making? And why is Fright Night a perfect case study?

When I was younger I wasn’t as into movies as I am now, though I still went to see a lot of them. I went to two movies a month and there were invariably some that weren’t as well watched as the others. The Monday after opening weekend I would listen to the radio and hear the DJ’s take on the new releases. Sometimes he would say he liked a movie, others he would deride. And then he would dismiss the others as flops. Not worthy of his time. Not worthy of anything. I got really angry when he did that. How could he talk about a movie he hadn’t seen? How could he know that there was nothing of value in those films? Did the fact that few people went to see a movie mean it was bad? Having been one of those few people quite often, I can safely argue against that particular line of thinking. Because opening weekend gross doesn’t have a single thing to do with the quality of a film. The only thing that makes a movie open well or poorly is the marketing. The quality of the film is completely irrelevant when it comes to opening weekend. If all of the good movies made a lot of money more movies would be good. The studios would realize that their hard work when creating the film would be repaid with the most money. But that’s not how it works. It’s the movies that are sold best that make the most money, for the most part. The most marketable movies aren’t necessarily the best movies, nor are the best movies necessarily marketable.

So, if a movie is marketed correctly and is good, it will never be a flop, right? Wrong. Fright Night, released last Friday to abysmal numbers, was marketed quite well. They played up both the horror and the comedy aspects. It’s a remake of a semi-beloved film and it stars a hunk, a hottie, and a geek icon. And it’s a good film! It’s a movie everybody should want to see. But maybe we’re just feeling a bit of vampire fatigue now. With all the Twilight films getting the big bucks it’s possible that Joe Public has gotten inundated with those films marketing that they got turned off of all vampire things. There’s no good explanation for why Fright Night performed poorly.

And now if you go look at the IMDb board for Fright Night you’ll see hordes of posters calling Fright Night a flop. You can sense the glee they get from proclaiming its failure. HA! The fact that few people went to see this movie validates them in some way. But it also closes the door on them experiencing the potential delight that comes from watching a good movie. They’re so focused on the fact that a movie didn’t make as much as it could have made that they forget the movie is a work of art. It exists to say something. To make us feel something. Maybe Fright Night isn’t the film equivalent of a Picasso, but there’s a lot of fun to be had and there’s a bit of a message in there, too. So don’t get all caught up in the monetary side, watch movies for their own merits, not those placed upon them by the bankers.