I recently found myself thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger's action movies from the 1980s which my friends and I, sometimes dutifully, sat through on the big screen. I re-watched Total Recall this summer and noticed how strong the female leads were with Arnold and all those special effects and planet sets filling the screen. I've also been wondering if Commando is as good as my friend and I thought it was. Even those that came and went, such as Raw Deal, made money, and the big fella didn't fall out of our graces. This piece by Jessica Ritchey captured what we liked about those movies, that there was more than meets the eye in this age where women in action movies feel like their straining to fill big shoes. They are, and they were better shoes. Why she and I and a few people I know have all been thinking about this sub-genre from that era at about the same time, though, is a mystery. Those movies (smirk).
After seeing The Martian win the box office again for the fifth week, with Goosebumps holding strong in second, one wonders why three other big releases bombed this weekend, and that's not counting Rock The Casbah with the usually reliable Bill Murray (Some swear they'll see him in anything). I noted how safe the box office champ played it though the story was balanced between one man's journey and the deliberations at NASA; it stands on its own, is original if not sticking to a formula. The movie is simply done well, and marks quite the return to form for Ridley Scott. I don't think our memories are that short; people will remember the two space movies I mention. People also like and admire ambition on some level, and Our Brand is Crisis doesn't have it. Sandra Bullock can do this part all too easily, and the independent director David Gordon Green, who has one of most curious of careers these days, mostly hits his mark, but has to be wary out of his comfort zone. This box office lull could also just be the dead zone before James Bond and other holiday hits roll in next weekend and beyond. Hence the lackadaisical output and attendance.
This was a little unexpected: Robert Zemeckis, the second most successful director of all time and adept at various genres with solid themes in his work, has a major flop. The Walk looked well made, awe-inspiring, and unseen by me as it appeared all spectacle. We know how it turns out thanks to the 2008 documentary which won the Academy Award. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave the French accent a college try, and he was set for a solid fall starring in Oliver Stone's movie about Edward Snowden. Then the latter got pushed back to May. But first, why did The Walk sputter so badly, even with an IMAX release? My guess is people, like me, read the reviews and saw that the first ninety minutes were the movie drawing attention to itself before a harrowing last thirty minutes. The whole story is probably done very well since Zemeckis has made some dandies. Even his failures (Back to the Future Part II) at least moved, didn't falter on ideas and took unexpected turns. I think this needed more, beyond spectacle and stunts, and whatever that more was wasn't conveyed in the previews.
Also out of the box office top ten is Black Mass, that much-marketed movie that was EVERYWHERE in big cities. Those who didn't read the book loved it, and the book gave them some scenes on a gold platter. It was bereft of ideas with no sense of history, community, or developing personas. That's where movies like that have to reach us. Seeing Goodfellas twenty-five years to the month after it came out, you see the consistencies: the beats between interactions, the visual consistencies, the mix of humor and brutality. That story evolves, becomes something more, then leaves room for humanity and, dare we say it, humor. That's why there are many celebrations of that movie and not Dances With Wolves, which was fine the one time I saw it. Then I haven't felt the urge to watch it again.
I've been meaning to write about openings for a while. Having re-watched the first half of Leon (Or The Professional) by Luc Besson, the opening introductions and scenes take just under nine minutes and establish so much. The rest of the movie gets worse with age.
The idea of how to drop characters definitely re-awakened with the viewing of Black Mass where Whitey Bulger's wife and son are dropped so coldly by the screenplay we wonder why they were in the movie in the first place. They served no dramatic impact. No effect on anyone else. Then Sicario, which knew its story and purpose so well, a chief supporting character played by Josh Brolin has an unmemorable exit but we don't feel cheated or wonder. The filmmakers know how we feel about him and his place in the story and his relation to, well, everyone and everything else in the movie. That's the big difference between a movie that panders and doesn't add up and one that invades your sub-conscience.
The fall of 1995 will always have a cinematic place in my mind. I had just returned from two years in Asia, the second of which was spent teaching in South Korea. After seeing edited films including a two-hour version of Pulp Fiction instead of two hours and thirty-four minutes, I was hungry. The independent film movement was well under way. As I'd give any mainstream movie a shot, a friend and I saw Showgirls, directed by Paul Verhoeven who had done Robocop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct. I had yet to see The 4th Man, which got him international attention in 1983.
So we went to see Verhoeven's latest with many other guys and a few elderly couples. The theater was packed on a Saturday afternoon. About ten minutes in the script by Joe Ezterhas, then the highest paid screenwriter in history, went from bad to worse. The direction, the characters, everything was so obvious, trite, and insipid, I left after an hour against my friend's wishes. I walked out, nodded with a smirk to the smiling people behind concessions, and entered The Usual Suspects, which I'd seen a few weeks earlier and was still thinking about. I joined about five others in the theater and watched about forty minutes. It was early in the story with characters getting to know one another with their distinct personalities revealing themselves. The first thing that occurred to me was that I walked out of a forty million-dollar movie and into a vastly superior six million-dollar movie.
I walked back into the movie we paid matinee price to see. "Did it get any better?" I asked my friend.
"Man, this is the worst thing ever," he said.
Sometimes we give talent leeway, and we have to hold the talented accountable, which can be ultimately good for them. Or, sometimes, we have to see what a proven artist is up to, what he/she is working on these days, and boy can they stumble. More remembrances of that great season to come.
The summer's biggest flops are that movies that either come in below our expectations, such as Magic Mike XXL starring only Channing Tatum and without Matthew McCopnaughey and Steven Soderbergh behind the camera, or confound us no matter how hard they try to inspire, such as Tomorrowland, which whisked us away but told a confusing, groundless story that didn't stick to a theme before hitting us over the head with a green message. The last movie to have this kind of green message was James Cameron's Avatar, but it wove its theme into the story. Brad Bird's film with George Clooney also had no memorable lines and imported resolution cliches toward the climax. A fistfight wasn't what you expected from a movie about the future.
It's also easy to pile on major misfires, but also time to look at why these stories didn't stick. Pixels was previewed for months, and as I attended middle and high school in the '80s, I could've, should've been in the marketing cross-hairs. Friends and I still weren't inspired. It looked like what it was: big budgeted, star-studded skits with videogames, which only go so far. The original Tron had characters and a premise that was duplicated by the uber-successful Matrix films. This thing looked like a huge skin deep skit. I (and many others) have yet to see Aloha or The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the latter of which had an awesome trailer; it looked inspired, which is more than a few listed above.
We all do it: sometimes you look back. Thirty years ago was the summer movies showed me the breadth and scope they can assume. After the much-heralded The Goonies opened well (I was fourteen, had barely outgrown it), Back to the Future opened in early July and blew everything away at the box office. That movie took you back thirty years from there. But there were other big movies that summer, and not just at the box office. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome took us back to the outback, showed the father side of a martyr, and how an action movie can be creative, mix genres, and stay tightly to its theme and structure.
I also think of John Boorman's The Emerald Forest. Here was a movie of monumental, sustaining cultural and political importance. The film's major character was played by Powers Boothe, who had seldom had so much screen time. It was also the first time a movie took me away to a faraway land and was subtle: the shot of the two construction workers stopping and talking at the edge of the forest before sauntering away, and the camera pans slowly to the right, showing the natives silently standing among the trees and leaves. The movie's not perfect, but it suggested and beckoned so much else in the world beyond the screen. Not many like it today.
2015 may go down as the first summer where cable television series made an impact on the mainstream box office. Tentpoles such as Pixels, advertised for months, or sequels such as Ted 2, came and went. You didn't hear anything about the story, nor talk to one person who saw them. Forgettable is what they were. Yet True Detective, The Walking Dead, and others had people talking at work. We finally had the sleeper hit of the summer if not the year with Straight Outta Compton. It apparently is a personal story, appealing to African American, white, musical audiences. That covers a lot of ground, but it's also personal.
I've been reading Sharon Waxman's excellent book Rebels on the Backlot. It's about six directors who clashed/worked with the major studios in the '90s. They made such unique hits as Three Kings, Being John Malkovich, and Fight Club, all of which came out in 1999. These people had visions, stuck to their stories and butted heads with just about every studio suit mentioned in the book. And many of them made money and are still working today. A sequel to this book could easily be in order. What's missing today are those unique stories that really went out on limbs, yet didn't sink. The studios knew talent when they saw it, or in the case of Malkovich, it just went below the radar during a merger. Filmmakers should be so lucky in this teaser-trailer-buzzfeed-Youtube era.
I just reviewed Shaun the Sheep and cannot say enough good things about it. One might ask why this of all movies matter. Easy: it makes us laugh, shows how simple, witty humor can maintain innocence yet be grownup, and reinvent the story of taking a character, or set of characters, we know and dropping them into familiar territory. Yet in this movie, that never gets old because the journey comes into contact with several facets of modern day and never dwells. A situation is introduced, we get a laugh, and move on.
I also just saw that on opening day director Josh Trank is blaming the studio for the result of Fantastic Four. The last Fantastic Four with a completely different cast was one of the most shallow, witless cinematic ventures of the last ten years. With this cast including Miles Teller and Kate Mara who have been in solid fare the last few years, they're probably not to blame. Instead, perhaps the studio and director should see above and Ant-Man to see what's possible. Both films create their own worlds, are true to themselves, have observations about human nature, and incorporate the world we live in into an organic story. They matter, whereas the current Fantastic Four sounds like it doesn't to anyone except investors.
Sometimes the box office cracks me up. Ant-Man barely held on, but did hold on, to first place, passing the $100 million mark in the U.S. and proving it won't go away easily. That's because it has a story built on principles, characters with history if a little too simple, and a mix of genres. Before we trumpet this thing too much, the tenth-place movie is the latest Terminator petering out at $85 million domestically. I haven't talked with one person who's seen it and urged me to see it. There you go.
At the movies last week, though, I saw the three best previews all summer. The new Star Wars with it's panning shot across what looks like the Tatooine comes upon a crashed Star Destroyer, an awesome sight on a few levels, for its sheer physical magnificence, evoking wonder, and on the storytelling level of crossing familiar with unfamiliar. Then came the shots of lightsabers, symbolizing the force, passed from one character to another. Then the final shot of Chewbacca and Han Solo. We sense the magic will be back, if not for breaking tremendously new ground (the black stormtroopers don't spark much awe), at least building from and sticking to its roots.
The new Mission Impossible looks solid with exotic locales and everyone having fun. We'll see it, and laud the studio for holding off on its release until July 31 when the dust has cleared. The last preview was huge: Guy Ritchie returning to what he does best with The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The two-male banter, the espionage, the improvisation amidst order of operations looks to be the sleeper hit of August. I didn't quite recognize Armie Hammer at first, but this director, I suspect, will get a good performance out of him as David Fincher did in The Social Network.
These three previews on the big screen were almost worth the price of admission.
Consider this article on SSN about creating compelling characters. The Minions has splashed into theaters, clearing the $100 million mark in its opening weekend. They're not quite compelling, and the filmmakers know this. Neither are the villains, so events, jokes, and reactions, which reveal character, are hurled at us at 180 mph over barely an 85-minute movie, if you include the credits. On the other hand, I hand a feeling about Ant-Man. Seeing Michael Douglas in the ageing role, Paul Rudd as the hero; these actors don't choose their scripts lightly. They know themselves too well, and the reviews say this Marvel adaptation, of the many over the last seven years or so (Iron Man came out seven years ago if you can believe it) has the best character development of any, if memory serves. That's saying something. A team of writers, with Edgar Wright getting first credit and Paul Rudd last for the screenplay, no doubt worked through the story multiple times. You have to, don't you?
Yes, the new Terminator has had mixed reviews, but I'll probably see it because it goes back to its roots. Many friends and I skipped the last Terminator movie because it looked like a quickly made if expensive grab at franchise territory plus no Arnie. This time he's back, and we have what looks like a decent actress playing Sarah Connor. This will do, even if it doesn't have Cameron behind the camera, which brings up his career: he is so smart at navigating what projects he takes on, we can't help but admire the man, whose last film came out five-and-a-half years ago, doesn't resonate with us as much as his others, but it struck a chord at the time. That's the enduring power of films, if not the cultural value of people who make them.
Here's the deal with Ted 2, or the previews of Ted 2: if these are the funniest parts, and one features Morgan Freeman in a courtroom half the time, where did the story and characters go? Was there a loss of confidence in the foul-mouthed teddy bear trying to find his way in the world the first time around? A friend and I just chatted about how the first one ended with Mila Kunis and Mark Wahlberg getting married, and territory was ripe for a sequel: it's called they have a baby. Think about it: the sequel starts with the baby crawling and the little tyke is an indirect, or direct, menace, benign or malevolent, to the teddy bear. Halfway through the movie the baby learns to walk. The teddy bear has to babysit the baby during the day. Jealousy on a few fronts ensues between all the characters, as do battles of wits, actions...this could've been done. Oh, and make the baby an interesting character, which they can be. Why? They're interested in everything, which makes them automatically interesting. Now, Seth MacFarlane I believe isn't a dad, but he could invite counsel on what people have gone through who've raised kids. That requires a degree of openness, which he might need for his career to sustain in features.
Occasionally it's tough to justify this site's title, having seen Spy and Jurassic World yesterday. Then you think, well, the former gets us to lighten up, especially when espionage can, we imagine, run so close to satire. The latter practically screams it was made for money, but it entertains, probably creates quite the visual and sensory experiences for those who saw it in 3D at the IMAX. And there are worse things to do on a Friday night. And for those who didn't see Jurassic Park twenty-two years ago, World probably got people thinking about toying with science, even if it retreats to horror cliches and injects military tactics, which is another horror cliche. Still, these films mean something, if not least because we have an obese, likable, trash-talking heroine in one, and another features one that outruns a supersize T-Rex in high heels. Actually, that last part doesn't matter, except for the suspension of belief.
Here is where one can't say I told you so, even though people in our culture love to whisper it and snicker behind backs, but the new Mad Max: Fury Road, has been out three weekends and has only slipped to fourth place at the U.S. box office. After debuting at $44 million for opening weekend, people have consistently gone to see it, and will see it worldwide. Why? There's the story. There's the minimalism of it, and there are shades of reality (What was that biker turf war in Texas really like? Are there gangs in the outback like this?) And remember, we haven't seen this land of Namibia and South Africa before, so it has that going for it. Oh yeah, the feminist bent that doesn't feel forced, but is welcome in this gritty male-warrior world. And remember the female warrior in the second installment? So the female touch has been there, it just shows up differently. Which ties back to its roots, which is what the movie stuck to.
Having not blogged one day shy of a month, this seems to be the most straightforward of all movie seasons. We know summer is coming. We have two blockbusters from franchises, The Avengers and Mad Max, though the later, as mentioned, comes thirty years after the last film. The difference is in the details: remember when Captain America opened last year in April? Now Avengers opens early May, and Max waits, then pounces a week before Memorial Day weekend, which I think is smart. How many people travel during the three days? Many, so give them something to see before they go and talk about while away, know what I mean?
Upon seeing Reservoir Dogs for the first time in nearly two decades, what's left in and what's left out are the underlying storytelling principles of this ninety-nine minute movie. How many filmmakers consciously go through this? Many, I think, but not at this level.
Is it just me, or has this March been sorely lacking in mainstream movie releases and seen foreign films, documentaries, Web series, streaming series, and cable series move in on the viewing field like gangbusters? Every time I surf the IMDB a new series is starting, and it looks half-good. Two documentaries have gotten raves: The Hunting Ground by Kirbie Dick and Going Clear by Alex Gibney. They are topical: rape on college campuses which many have heard about so the film must provide insight with its boldness, and the latter on Scientology and based on the 2009 Pulitzer-prize-winning book. Otherwise, the distribution field, again, appears wide open, and consumer choices deciding the fate of many. Let's hope the summer blockbusters seize a few eyeballs. The new Mission Impossible with Tom Cruise looks deftly paced and handled in the hands of Christopher McQuarrie. The backers sure hope so, and it's not that risky, so maybe risk-averse is the way to go with so many choices.
The box office: what's there and what's already fallen off astounds me. Still Alice, boasting an Oscar winner, creeps past the $11 million mark, and apparently Julianne Moore deserves the statuette, though almost nobody has told me it's a must-see. Fifty Shades of Grey creeps toward the $150 million despite a steep dropoff in sales, showing what a weak story does on a not-often-used-but-reliable formula. Then there's...Jupiter Ascending? Already out of the top ten and below Hot Tub Time Machine 2, which fell from the number two spot to ten without John Cusack? One would expect a few more people to see the latest Wachowski sibling outing, but this is ridiculous. The new Will Smith/Margot Robbie thriller Focus debuted fine at almost 19 million, but watch: it'll drop off to net around forty million eventually. This might all be because just now Netflix announced even more A-list talent set for this summer, which could be the summer of streaming and not multiplexes.
We need wit. Boldness. Sincerity, not surface banter. Or real cinema, such as Birdman and Boyhood that take stories in new directions, and unique ones. It may be a while, but there always seem to be surprises in spring.
The Oscars delivered what it needed: a solid tribute to movies. It also had enough tongue-in-cheek humor and the musical numbers cut to just the right length that it never grew that tiresome. That said, it still ran over three and-a-half hours and, if you believe those figures, 36.6 million people ages 18-49 viewed the ceremony, down 18% from last year. That I believe. About an hour in, it really started to drag, though Tim McGraw did a solid rendition of Glen Campbell's "I'm not gonna miss you."
For the first time since I can remember, my pick for the year's best film won Best Picture. The Grand Budapest, in my top five, took four Oscars, and the winners eagerly all thanked Wes Anderson to the skies. The big surprise came when Eddie Redmayne won Actor over Michael Keaton. This one is tough, if only because cynics rear their heads, including part of mine, when someone plays a disabled. Long ago someone said playing comedy is so much harder than playing drama, and without Keaton, where would Birdman have landed? It's clearly his movie, his range, his tour de force that will be remembered. The film also, however, duly picked up Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Cinematography, and Director. This has happened before: the director win and his better film loses Picture--remember two years ago when Ang Lee won for Life of Pi, his second time, for an extraordinary feat, yet Argo took home Best Picture. But then, it was twenty-five years ago as an exchange student in Europe that I learned the average Academy voting age; you don't quite look at the Oscars the same after finding that out. There's also only six thousand or so voting, so who's to say? And don't people like making up their own minds now than, say, Gene Shalit reviewed? That's what someone told me once, and I find it too true. So yeah, the Oscars will shake it up again and probably go back to an ol' reliable host, and then the ratings will go back up, and are the rest of us affected? Boy does that depend. Probably not, but hey, it's sorta like sports: no matter how corrupt, it's fun to get sucked back in.
And so the oddsmakers, pundits, and columnists are all aflutter in the run-up to the Oscars this Sunday. So many times people say, "She/he has been nominated three or four times, it's time to win!" Maybe. Amy Adams has been nominated five times and snuck up on us. Someone like Steve Carell has slowly built capital into being taken seriously in his best role to date in Foxcatcher. The two frontrunners for Best Picture, Birdman and Boyhood, were by far the bravest, most original films, and the Academy voting might be a dead-heat. Remember who's voting, their reported average age, and that was something I learned twenty-five years ago as an exchange student in Europe. Oh, the things we learn that don't go reported to locals.
The other angle is perspective. A friend said five years ago during The Great Recession, when Oscar viewers were headed downward, "Who wants to watch millionaires give each other awards?" This a week after the NBA doesn't allow the general public to buy tickets to its All-Star Game. Nope, corporate clients only. So, people will pick and choose the films they think are best, and you always wonder how much luck plays a part, or how many dues actors/actresses have to pay in order to win. Apparently Jake Gyllenhaal has to pay more, though he easily gave one of the most memorable performances in one of the most relevant movies of last year. There is still so much we don't know, the Academy voting process so secret, that after awhile, will this turn viewers away? From the show, maybe, but not from movies.
The box office flops of Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son shouldn't come as too big a surprise. February is a strange time to debut big event pictures, and some studios must think they can release them at any time throughout the year. Or, they sink a ton of money into a project, get behind the eight ball trying to work these behemoths around other releases instead of the other way around, and release anyway, when they can. The lone preview of Jupiter I saw made it look wildly ambitious; nothing wrong with that. But then it occurred to me during the preview how the Wachowskis were going to weave all those characters, worlds, and special effects into just over two hours. Seven Son, I hate to say, looked like a Lord of the Rings redux/ripoff, and I'm a big fan of Jeff Bridges who can emerge unscathed from just about anything, and has. Remember R.I.P.D.? I barely do, yet his image as a cowboy still evokes while nothing else the other guy, Ryan Reynolds did, does. So now we're back to characters, of which I've heard absolutely nothing about from those who've seen Jupiter Ascending. Think back to Star Wars in 1977 and the people in that story.
The eight or so previews I saw prior to Blackhat were indeed event films. More than a few of my interviews have suggested that's where we're headed: big pictures that have to be seen on the big screen. From the Seventh Son with Jeff Bridges to the often-moved Jupiter Ascending, let's hope the filmmakers don't mistake ambition or exercises for storytelling.
The last three movies I've reviewed have received the same rating: three-and-a-half stars. This probably isn't a coincidence. Movies can be quite good and if just short of awesome, some re-evaluation could have been in order. Remember, people are paid big bucks to do this, and no one is perfect, though a few efforts, Psycho comes to mind, are just about there. It is so easy to pick apart a film and so hard to make one, yet you're not sure the filmmakers are sure what kind of story they have on their hands when the final cut begins. The Immitation Game, so strong for one hour and forty-five minutes, is one such film, that becomes an ode to its main character the last ten minutes when it's completely unnecessary. This isn't without admiration for what Morten Tyldum and Graham Moore, the director and writer, achieved; it's just that one wonders that if they looked back over the first ninety percent of what they did, they might have rethought how to finish this unassuming, compelling story. Then again, a writing instructor once said that finishing a manuscript is about the hardest thing you'll ever do. Was for me once. Maybe that's why movies and stories matter so much: we don't even know the ending to our own lives much less our daily lives.
You could subtitle last night's Golden Globes the rise of the indie. Richard Linklater, so pioneering the last twenty years, won Best Director for the best-reviewed films of the year, Boyhood. This is the same year that produced a documentary about the truly original director. I was truly surprised people remembered Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel from back in March; shut out were indie favorites such as Under the Skin, which many critics liked. I was glad it wasn't up for any, except for Scarlet Johannsson, who gave a brave performance and little to work with, even less to play against on camera.
Some also finally got honors they deserved: Jeffrey Tambor, Billy Bob Thornton, and Kevin Spacey have been good if not great for decades. Spacey gave a great speech, recounting an interaction with the one and only Stanley Kramer, a director barely thought of today who tackled social issues throughout the fifties and sixties. The speech was humble, recreated a momentous interaction with the director, and was clearly one that inspired the actor to this day and will for quite some time. Amy Adams won for Big Eyes; she makes more of an impression in a difficult role in the previews than some do over two hours.
The Cecil B. DeMille award went to George Clooney for his tireless humanitarian work, and what a career! He's been on the big screen twenty years after a run on ER, and he's barely chosen a misguided project and story, even directing a few great movies to be remembered, such as Good Night, and Good Luck. In all a decent show, and the hosts will be very, very hard to follow, if it is indeed Fey and Poehler's last stint.