Saturday, June 16, 2012

Small Delights Along the Mainstream

A scene from Disney's John Carter, starring Taylor Kitsch

Back in the heyday of the big Hollywood studios, when every major company prepared an A picture and a low-budget B picture for each week of the year, no one expected that every movie would be a major event.  Movies provided a variety of pleasures, and it wasn’t a big deal if you caught some of them on the fly – a lightweight vehicle tailor-made for a beloved star, a disposal musical showcasing a few terrific dancers or a handful of inventive production numbers, an ingeniously plotted murder mystery or film noir, a romantic comedy or an action picture with a smart, wisecracking screenplay. And though there are far fewer choices now and the vast majority of releases aren’t worth any intelligent viewer’s time or money, movies still provide a spectrum of pleasures.  The problem is that the economics of filmmaking has taken many of them off the radar. Studios put the weight of their publicity machines behind only a selected few of the movies they bankroll, theatre owners play along, and, good or bad, a media event like Marvel’s The Avengers literally crowds other, smaller pictures out of the megaplexes.  If you don’t live in a big, art-house-friendly city like New York or Boston or Toronto, you don’t get a chance to see anything that isn’t given a wide release, i.e., anything that isn’t groomed to be a hit.  The only chance that a terrific little movie like Of Gods and Men or 50/50 or Margaret has of finding an audience is by word of mouth once an adventurous or lucky viewer stumbles across it on DVD.  (Margaret, which was cheated of any chance at awards from critics’ groups by a studio that stubbornly refused to send out screeners of it at the end of last year, is finally coming out on DVD in July.)

But even mainstream pictures that might offer audiences some entertainment – movies that moviegoers in most locations can actually get to – often fall by the wayside.  When so much emphasis is placed on box office receipts, the stink of failure comes off movies that don’t make an immediate mark.  And even movie reviewers, whose job is supposed to be to guide the public around the distractions, to persuade readers of viewers or listeners that the movie with the loudest media coverage or the biggest numbers isn’t necessarily the one worth putting down twelve or fifteen bucks for, aren’t immune to the smell. Critics don’t generally reserve their nastiest barbs for a loathsome hit like The Hunger Games. They save them up for modest programmers like Man on a Ledge or expensive box-office bombs like John Carter.

We can all agree that the $250 million price tag on John Carter, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s 1917 sci-fi fantasy A Princess of Mars, was a folly.  The movie didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of breaking even, and in the battle scenes you can see how the budget got in the way:  there’s so much money on the screen that the actors and even the camera seem mired in it, unable to break free.  But for all its faults the movie isn’t the embodiment of evil.  Even most pictures you wouldn’t mind spending a couple of hours with are mixed bags, and John Carter has a lot more to recommend it than most.  The scenes set among the Tharks, the multi-limbed Martians who haven’t evolved to look like earthlings, are funny in a parodic comic-strip (Flash Gordon) way, and they’ve been put together with some visual imagination – not a surprise considering that the director is Andrew Stanton, the Pixar alum who was responsible for Finding Nemo and WALL-E And the leading man, Taylor Kitsch, commands the screen.  In some episodes he gets to do more: as he showed in the role of the noble-hearted but self-destructive high-school football star Tim Riggins in the TV series Friday Night Lights, Kitsch has a gift for hobbled romantic ardor, and he’s ideally cast as the Confederate loyalist who transposes his zeal for lost causes to the fight to restore peace to embattled Mars.

Reese Witherspoon & Robert Pattinson in Water for Elephants
Several other movies that provided easy targets for critical disdain in the last year and a half had something going for them.  The circus melodrama Water for Elephants collapses in the last act from plotting issues that evidently originated in the bestselling novel on which it was based, but the movie is staged and shot with real skill;  the director, Francis Lawrence, is an underrated talent. (He also did the Will Smith actioner I Am Legend, which has an exciting, evocative first hour.)  Christoph Waltz, with his unconvincing high-pitched voice, doesn’t work as the sadistic circus owner, but the romantic scenes between Reese Witherspoon as his wife and Robert Pattinson as her lover have a pulse – and though the pans for Pattinson didn’t distinguish between his efforts here and the poster-boy passivity of his appearances in the Twilight series, he’s not bad in Water for Elephants (Playing opposite Witherspoon must have had an effect on him, as well it should have.)  Captain America: The First Avenger has a wonderful look, and it was a clever notion to overlap the conventions of the boys’ adventure movie with those of the comic-strip movie.  Many movies in this genre are impersonal and monolithic; Captain America has enough idiosyncrasies to give it a distinctive personality. (That’s also true of Thor, though its romantic story is a bust.)  Man on a Ledge, which lays a wronged-cop narrative on top of a heist scenario, is suspenseful and the twists pay off.  And though Sam Worthington isn’t memorable as the hero, he’s surrounded by a lively supporting cast -- especially Jamie Bell, whose mix of irony and athleticism suggests a modernist variant of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn in their swashbuckler roles.  Tower Heist isn’t much, perhaps, but the plotting is fun and so are the actors: Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe. (Sidibe coming on to Murphy like an African American Mae West and his incredulous response provided the best double-barrel laugh I got at any movie that came out in 2011’s Thanksgiving-Christmas crush.)

I often get the sense that, consciously or unconsciously, many critics write their reviews in their heads before actually seeing the movies. Often, I suspect, that’s a result of (a) what publicists “leak” to them about how dismal the pictures are that the studios have opted to bury and (b) the lack of attention they receive:  last-minute critics’ screenings or none at all, delayed release and/or early-year bookings, when the Thanksgiving-Christmas blockbusters are still bringing in crowds and the prestige movies, crowned with end-of-year awards, are competing for Oscars.  Once a publicist told some of us before a screening that what we were about to see wasn’t much good.  It was Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations, and Cuarón didn’t have the reputation in 1997 that he earned five years later with Y Tu Mamá También, so this gorgeous movie was met with groans and guffaws.  Some gifted filmmakers never seem to catch a break – like the Irish director Jim Sheridan, whose movies are always worth seeing.  He was so dismayed by the changes the studio made to last summer’s Dream House that he wanted to take his name off the final product, and it’s easy to see where it was interfered with.  But Dream House is hardly the cruddy horror picture it was reported to be.  It has one of those twisty plots that hinge on the insanity of the main character, like Scorsese’s Shutter Island, but this one works differently:  the revelation that the main character (Daniel Craig, in perhaps his best performance so far) is delusional doesn’t seal off the narrative – it opens up the movie emotionally, turning it into a lyrical, woebegone meditation on loss. The movie contains sequences that are simultaneously creepy and affecting, and it’s hard to believe that any film with acting of this quality (Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts give fine supporting performances) could be simply thrown onto the trash heap.  That mix of terror and sorrow is just as potent in The Woman in Black, a ghost story by James Watkins that slipped in and out of theatres early this year starring Daniel Radcliffe as a turn-of-the-century English widower who’s still drowning in grief over his wife’s death four years earlier.  Both the narrative and the imagery appear to have been inspired by Poe, and on the big screen the film was honestly as frightening as anything I’ve ever sat through.  (One spectral effect made me understand for the first time the meaning of the phrase “my blood ran cold.”)

Matt Damon in We Bought a Zoo
Sheridan has never garnered the reputation he deserved:  Daniel Day Lewis’s great performances in My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father had the odd effect of upstaging the movies (both of which are brilliant), which may be the reason nothing Sheridan has made without Day Lewis, even the exquisite magic-realist family drama In America, has made a splash.  On the other end of the spectrum, a director who is a critic’s darling can fall from grace, and perhaps that’s even a worse fate. It happened to Cameron Crowe, who followed Almost Famous with two pictures nobody liked, Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown. Now the poor bastard can’t get arrested.  He didn’t have a chance at getting a hearing with the Christmas release We Bought a Zoo, a heartwarming true story about a widower who tries to give himself and his two kids a new lease on life by moving them into a dilapidated zoo. The trailers looked goopy, but trailers aren’t made by filmmakers, and anyway trying to predict which movies are going to work and which aren’t is a fool’s game.  We Bought a Zoo is a charmer, made with authentic feeling and featuring winning performances by both the animal actors and the human ones, especially Matt Damon (who’s at a point in his career where everything he does is worth a look), Scarlett Johannson and a pair of teens, Colin Ford and the freakishly talented Elle Fanning.

And it happened to the German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who made The Lives of Others in 2006.  Perhaps because of the deserved widespread praise for that film, when his next picture turned out to be not another profound political drama but a breezy romantic-comedy thriller, The Tourist, it was treated like an embarrassing mistake.  The Tourist was a 2010 Christmas release, and I thought it was one of those deluxe entertainments that you used to look forward to at the holidays – ingenious, lovingly assembled, with witty star performances (by Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie) and sumptuous European locales.  It felt like a vacation; it also brought back memories of Charade. When it was shot down in flames, I experienced something like despair:  who is going to want to make lush, purely enjoyable movies like this one (or Casanova, which was similarly dismissed five years earlier) if no one shows up for them?  What all of the movies I’ve discussed in this piece have in common is an ethic, if you will, that is no longer in fashion:  a commitment to storytelling craft and to the holdover pleasures of the big-studio days.  It’s our loss if we squander them when they’re put in our way.

 – Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment