Monthly Archives: January 2011

Dramas, Blockbusters, and the Academy Awards

Almost every year detractors complain of the Academy’s disregard for popular entertainment. In Oscar’s eyes, the “movie” is somehow inferior to the worthy “film”. As a filmmaker, you either dumb down your craft to make nine figures, or you take your work seriously, because Academy voters like nothing better than art that knows it is serious. When both coalesce it is the exception, not the rule.

Last year the dichotomy between pop and art were obvious: Cameron’s crowd-seducing Avatar vs. Bigelow’s indie thriller The Hurt Locker. I use the labels “movie” and “film” with caution. They are more economic distinctions than aesthetic ones. Avatar glowed with as much breathless artistry as The Hurt Locker simmered with tried-and-true exercises in Hitchcockian suspense. Bigelow’s effort made back its $11-million, but only squeaked in and out of theatres. Meanwhile Avatar charged, dominating the box office for seven straight weeks.

By giving Best Picture to The Hurt Locker, the Academy lived up its reputation for high-brow snobbery. Of course, they would not give the award to the biggest cinematic event of the year (which Avatar was, tepid plot aside). Of course, they would not give The Dark Knight a nomination in 2008. Even doubling the amount of nominees did not give the popular films a fighting chance at the award.

This year, unique visions and commercial appeal have paired together in a surprising number of films that won critics and audiences. In an industry increasingly dominated by massive budgets and groundbreaking special effects, Americans (and, let’s not forget, Canadians) have turned overwhelmingly to niche auteurs and dramas.

A group of strong contenders are poised to carve the Academy between themselves, maybe evenly. There is no binary Cameron-Bigelow showdown. Undoubtedly, The Social Network is the zeitgeist biopic routing the accolades and winning the critic’s affections. Fincher’s cynical drama raked in $192 million, despite having little star power (only Justin Timberlake in a supporting role) and an unsympathetic host of characters.

Even more extraordinary was True Grit, which grossed $138 million domestically. Considering the Coen brothers are hardly mainstream material and the Western is a genre long thought dead, this was the year’s runaway hit. The psychosexual Black Swan also exceeded expectations with an impressive $83 million, despite director Daren Aronofsky’s poor history with the box office. Other indies excelled: The Fighter won $75 million; The King’s Speech crossed the Atlantic and the $100 million mark.

From hollywoodnews.com

This was an amazing year for dramas, original concepts, and a dead monarch’s stutter. Even among the blockbusters novelty prevailed. Who would have thought a two-and-a-half hour mindbender like Inception would gross $800 million? Granted, the ads were prefaced with “From the Director of the Dark Knight”, but Christopher Nolan does not have the same draw as Spielberg or Bay. Neither does Tim Burton, who gambled on an unpromising March release date to sell the monumental Alice in Wonderland.

But what about the usual cash machines, the sequels, remakes, and star vehicles that fill the most seats year by year? As Brooks Barnes noted in The New York Times, a large number of expected steamrollers tanked. The Killers and The Tourist needed foreign rentals to make back their budgets, despite having the full weight of studio marketing. Sex and the City 2 and The Revenge of Kitty Galore also underperformed domestically.

I have hope, as Barnes does, that audiences are becoming more demanding. They want an Inception or a Despicable Me rather than another Prince of Persia. Strong numbers for the Oscar front runners could be a signal of audiences maturing out of the governing 18-25 male demographic.

To understand the shift to quality it is useful to go back to last winter, when Avatar was well on its way to breaking the billion-dollar benchmark. Cameron’s visuals, scope, and 3D mastery have not yet been equalled, even challenged. Has the standard been set too high for subsequent blockbusters to compete? Were Avatar’s stunning looks and banal story so mismatched as to train us to spot rehashed material in subsequent spectacles?

There are too many outliers to answer in the affirmative. 3D did wonders for Resident Evil: Afterlife and Clash of the Titans, and the requisite summer sequel Iron Man 2 exploded globally. But the same magic is gone, or at least waning. Tron Legacy, in all its attempts to be 2010’s Avatar, was only a moderate success. When True Grit is approaching the same numbers as Tron’s domestic haul, one can be optimistic enough to say we might just be sick of the same shit.

Studios recognize this but, typically, are taking shortcuts. When Sony hired Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) to direct its Spider-Man reboot, industry watchers like Variety called it a watershed moment of abandoning studio journeymen in favour of untested young talent. I think the more pressing issue is that Sony fully expects us to watch Peter Parker learn to climb again. No later than 2013. I thought the success of this year’s contenders would inspire Sony to find Webb a project to suit his subjective and postmodern takes on romantic comedy.

Keep 'em down, boys, don't let him make another movie.

 

Increasingly, it does not matter what Canadians and Americans think. Foreigners are gorging themselves on Hollywood crap. Gulliver’s Travels has little right to make obscene amounts on money, but Jack Black did just that outside the U.S. Flashy, simple, and loud, action movies easily transcend cultural barriers. Producers can jump on the 3D bandwagon (regardless of how gratuitous and poor most 3D is), and exhibitors can charge higher ticket prices.

While I am glad that so many award-winning dramas plundered the  home box office, this might be a minor blip in the Hollywood model and not the start of a trend. Clearly, studios are still hedging their bets on animation, sequels, and comic book adaptations.

Now the challenge is putting new wine into old bottles. Nolan’s reinvention of the derailed Batman franchise showed the MPAA how to inject high-brow gravity, no matter how superficial, into the familiar origin story. 20th Century Fox has already picked up Aronofsky to direct Wolverine 2. The result should be interesting, but I hope auteurs will be given support for their own projects, even if they have to “make one for the system”. However, if attendance continues to drop almost ten percent a year, than the system might have to green light stories as original as their directors.

This article can also be found in next week’s issue of The Varsity, the University of Toronto student newspaper. If you liked this, subscribe to Post Projection on the right.

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Errol Flynn: Captain Blood

Since we’ve been hearing about the planned Captain Blood remake since July, 2009, I thought it about time to revisit the 1935 version. It’s unclear when the Spierig brother‘s science fiction adaptation will be released, or if it’s in pre-production. Warner Bros. and producer Bill Gerber have said the story – lifted from Rafael Sabatini’s novel – will remain unchanged, even if the characters will be fighting across galaxies and not in 17th century galleons.

The Captain Blood that has endured as a classic was actually a remake of a 1924 silent film starring J. Warren Kerrigan, who left acting after this film. Some shots of the naval battle were edited into Flynn’s sound update.

The Talent

Producers Hal B. Wallis and Jack Warner hired Michael Curtiz, and old hand at Warner, to direct the big-budget swashbuckler. The Hungarian-born Curtiz had moved to the United States in 1926, though his English remained so poor he often called his estranged wife Bess Meredyth for linguistic help on set.  [Harmetz, Alean. Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of “Casablanca”. Orion Publishing Co, 1993. p. 123] Though he was a versatile talent he always inflicted a sense of action in a scene, moving the camera, playing with shadow, adding a shifting European dynamism.

Jack L. Warner and Hal B. Wallis plan Blood. Curtiz looks on. From: http://www.eightyoddyears.com/gallery-103.html

Captain Blood was the first of eight collaborations between Curtiz and Tasmanian actor Errol Flynn, who worked for Warner Bros. England in the early 1930s. He was, however, unknown on the other side of the Atlantic. Olivia de Haviland was also unknown, playing parts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) and The Irish in Us (1935 – and what a title). This was an almost unprecedented risk for a tentpole picture.

Warner was gambling on the recent successes of The Count of Monte Cristo and Treasure Island (both 1934). The period piece allowed studios to bend the rules of the Hollywood Code, enforced energetically due to pressure from groups like the Catholic  National Legion of Decency. Historical settings allowed more leeway for violence, drunkenness, and sexual innuendo – how can you shoot a pirate movie and not show brawling, alcoholism, and womanizing? Warner felt the time was right to reinvigorate the genre. He made some predictable casting decisions, too, just to be safe: Basil Rathbone was an easy pick for the likeable villain Lavasseur, and Lionel Atwill was a reliable bad guy, whose every gesture and sharp glare lets you know he’s mean without the trouble of much establishing dialogue.

Flynn and Atwil (Governor Bishop) size each other up at a slave auction.

According to  film scholar and biographer Lincoln D. Hurst, Flynn was quaking with fear in the early days of the shoot. This is not apparent in the final product partly because Curtiz reshot some of those moments after Flynn gained the charisma and confidence that seduced audiences. Thomas McNulty, author of Errol Flynn: The Life and Career, calls the star a “personality” actor, not a “method” actor of the Stanislavski school: “He had style when style was everything.” Evaluating Flynn as a good or bad actor is almost besides the point. He matched the glowing pomp of the Hollywood Golden Age.

Despite the scope of the pirate battles, Warner and Wallis relied almost exclusively on soundstages. The Rathbone-Flynn duel was filmed at Laguna Beach under the supervision of fencing master Frank Cavens. He gave Hollywood sword fights a polished elegance, and was probably held in the same high regard Woo-ping Yuen of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is today.

The original music was supplied by Austrian composer Erich Korngold. He had just returned to Europe from scoring A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was asked to score Captain Blood…in three weeks. Because of ominous sounds from Germany, Korngold decided to remain in L.A., scoring Warner’s films until 1947. In Captain Blood he hammered home emotional themes through operatic crescendos, drumming in the upswings and downswings of the plot. His flourishes underscore Blood’s motivations and desires, a perfectly thunderous accompaniment to a full-throttle action movie:

[http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAMMgOtxISo]

The film’s overwhelming success was one of the most stunning debuts of any Hollywood actor. And the debut of a stunning couple: de Havilland and Flynn became a star team. I will look at a few of their others collaborations, including They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) in the new few weeks. Warner’s casting instincts proved right, and all of the film’s uncertain elements coalesced and connected with audiences. Something similar would happen in 1942, when Curtiz directed Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in an oddly structured film called Casablanca.

The English Revolution

James II, 1633-1701

Warner wisely stayed away from the political content of the period, which was in any case an odd scenario for a modern pirate movie. Pirates of the Caribbean remained in safe waters by pitting the British Royal Navy and a rabble lovable pirates against unlovable pirates. Peter Blood, on the other hand, is a Protestant rebel in an England on the brink of another civil war. The year is 1685, the Catholic James II has just ascended the throne, and the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion has just been defeated.

Peter Blood, a physician of Monmouth’s supporters, is sentenced to slavery in Bardbados by no other than Judge Jeffreys, a notorious alcoholic and royalist. Some rebels actually did become plantation slaves, though Curtiz does not portray the misery of the black slaves in the colony who vastly outnumbered the band of English dissenters. The film also avoids religious references; apart from the word “papist” in the opening scenes, the struggle is cast in mould of tyranny vs. freedom, not Rome/France vs. the Anglican Church (and the other strands of Protestantism).

The Glorious Revolution itself happens offscreen. While Blood captures a Spanish galleon, pirates all over the Caribbean,

William of Orange, 1650-1702

duels Levasseur over the governor’s daughter, and saves Barbados from the French navy, William of Orange invaded England with a Dutch navy. William was married to James’ daughter Anne. The King’s support collapsed when William came ashore and ascended to the throne as join-ruler with his wife. The Bill of Rights were passed, cementing Parliament’s ascendancy in financial matters, essentially keeping England on the course of constitutional monarchy.

In the film Blood is summoned back by the new King. He gladly throws down his pirate ways just as he seems most determined to stay an outlaw. Protestant William’s summons is an odd mixture of deus ex machina and historical accuracy – though I am not sure if the rebels were pardoned by William. Monmouth, after all, held several coronation ceremonies in Somerset county, treasonous behaviour since James II was a legitimate monarch.

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Somewhere Familiar

If you are Sofia Coppola, and you are planning on doing an indie drama with the requisite long takes, pedestrian dialogue, and narrative inconclusiveness, then you also carry a few responsibilities. Since your implicit aim is to reveal the complex inner psychology of characters, it is usually not a good idea to repeat the same scene, with the same reaction on the part of the character you are trying to dissect. It is also a low shot to copy and paste moments and moods from your earlier work, which, while being similarly slow and pensive, at least had the advantage of originality. Finally, do not end on a deliriously ‘heartwarming’ ending when you have done next to nothing to make us sympathetic to the blank protagonist.

I understand what some of the critics are saying about Coppola’s new effort, Somewhere. Roger Ebert praised the director for her observations of the continuously constructed and managed world of Hollywood stardom. Liam Lacey notes the “retro” feel of the film, as if Coppola used her father’s Rumble Fish lenses. I know the film is different, that it is meant to be watched with patience, and that Sofia Coppola is a very talented and smart filmmaker.

What I do not understand is why Somewhere is full of takes so long that even the lowest common denominator has grasped the metaphor before the cut. Why do we need to see a pair of strippers dancing on collapsible poles not once but twice, with nothing but a change of uniform? And why does each scene go on for at least two minutes?

Granted, Coppola is still a good satirist. Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) is a bland celebrity shuttled from LA to Rome, from resplendent suites to press conferences, like a good-looking zombie. There are some clever moments: he exchanges barbs with co-star Michelle Monaghan in between smiling poses for a photographer. Not much holds these isolated moments together, and Coppola said much of the same in the superior Lost in Translation.

Johnny and his daughter Cleo have the more or less the same relationship that Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlet Johansson) had. A bored actor is encased in a hotel. He’s meets a younger woman who changes his nihilistic outlook. This woman likes him (in a platonic way) but is disappointed by his excesses. In fact, the morning when Cleo finds Johnny’s Italian lover at the breakfast table contains the same muted resentment as the scene when Charlotte discovers Bob has picked up a nightclub singer. Not to split hairs, but both the lover and the singer wear a white bathrobe.

It’s time, I think, for Coppola to leave the theme of fame and explore another world, one further away from her own childhood and the moments she glimpsed on her father’s sets.

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James Stewart: The FBI Story

As its title suggests, The FBI Story is not about one person, but an army of intelligence agents and analysts in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is about the department’s growth from a disorganized arm of the federal government to a powerful crime-fighting force under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. But it is also about, or tries to be about, Agent Chip Hardesty, a fictitious agent who fights the KKK, hoodlums, gangsters, and communists while struggling to keep his marriage and family intact.

He’s in the thick of all the action, but he’s not the brains behind it. As director Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, producer of The Wizard of Oz) flips through the landmarks of FBI history he does not ascribe much to his lead character, played, of course, by James Stewart. Okay, he does take the lead in the earlier episodes: arresting KKK members in Tennessee, investigating the murders of Native Americans in Oklahoma. But once the dangerous 1930s roll through Agent Chip is a side-player, hopping onto half-finished cases, firing one gun of many, and following rather than leading the charges.

This is realistic, but it makes for an odd narrative, and an odd James Stewart movie. The shooting and arrest of Babyface Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Ma Barker among others is played out like TV dramatizations. Apart from the Native American murder mystery, none of the cases are explored in enough depth to be intriguing.

It feels like propaganda, especially when Stewart’s voiceover tells us American communists “betrayed their country”. In the opening sequence Stewart narrates the investigation into a plane explosion, taking us into the labs of FBI scientists and criminologists. Praise is heaped on these men and women, the real heroes of the story, throughout the film. Hoover himself is shown only in shadow or from the back like Seinfeld‘s Steinbrenner. He apparently picked Stewart personally for the role and forced LeRoy to reshoot several scenes.

LeRoy invented the 1930s gangster picture with Little Caesar. From: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_bpdWsOrotV0/TLZYFmJoV5I/AAAAAAAADjc/c1OMARoasSg/s1600/mervyn+leroy+1.jpg

Stewart was an engaging, even menacing, protagonist in Anthony Mann’s Westerns and Hitchcock’s thrillers, but here he bumbles through his sappy relationship with his patient wife Lucy (Vera Miles, also better with Hitchcock). When he’s making arrests he takes a backseat to a conveyor belt of interchangeable FBI agents. His one companion Sam (Murray Hamilton, who co-starred with Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis) is shot by Baby Face at Spider Lake, Wisconsin.

The real shooting took place at Little Bohemia Lodge. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies renders this scene and Dillinger’s death outside the Biograph Theatre in more detail.

Stewart’s character is neither interesting nor especially integral to these proceedings. I found myself thinking of this film in the larger context of the actor’s career. Released in 1959, The FBI Story is post-Vertigo (a film coolly received upon release) and pre-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also under-appreciated). Stewart has reached his 50s and can no longer convincingly play younger men – though they tried their damnedest in The Spirit of St. Louis. You know an actor’s career is winding slowly down when the film he stars in don’t seem to need him after the ad campaign.

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