[6 March 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It may just be the post-Oscar malaise talking, but 2013 isn’t shaping up to be the best year for films - at least as far as the first two months go. Oh sure, these are the real dog days of cinema, a time where studios dump the contractually obligated star vehicles that fail to meet the Summer popcorn/Fall Awards window, as well as any other distributable dreck hanging around their always overflowing vaults. It’s rare when a good film stumbles out of this four month fizzle. In fact, it was typically a given that nothing viable would come out of Tinseltown until the teenagers started to wake up - around mid-April. Until then, it was failed wannabe franchises, lame leftovers, and more than one example of star chutzpah supplanting viable acting ability.
It’s odd - by this time last year we had Steven Soderbergh’s MMA-inspired Haywire, the excellent Liam Neeson nature thriller The Grey, the fascinating found footage take on the superhero genre entitled Chronicle, and the semi-successful scarefest The Woman in Black. Sure, there was some swill among the celebrations, but for the most part, the hits held more meaning than the misses. But 2013 - sheeeesh! January offered nothing of real value, while one has to look beyond the basics to find anything of worth in February. Between the ZomRomCom fun of Warm Bodies and the half-baked Hitchcock of Soderbergh’s Side Effects, there were few joys. Add in the already circulating companion piece to the Paradise Lost efforts, West of Memphis (a holdover from Oscar season) and the pickings are slim indeed.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Last year, March delivered two sensational fantasy films, though only The Hunger Games got any accolades (the unfairly mocked John Carter was just as good, if not better) and April came through with the year-end bests The Cabin in the Woods and The Raid: Redemption. Looking over the schedule this year, we’ve got Sam Raimi’s take on Oz The Great and Powerful, the magician vs. magician mania of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and the White House action spectacle Olympus Has Fallen. We even get another dose of Stephanie Meyers in the form of her Twilight in the making mediocrity, The Host.
April could be our saving grave however. The list of titles alone - a new one from Danny Boyle (Trance), Terrence Malick (To the Wonder), Tom Cruise as the last man on Earth, maybe (Oblivion), the story of Jackie Robinson and baseball’s color barrier (42) and the long awaited, and debated, remake of The Evil Dead are enough to give one hope. Michael Bay also shows up for a “normal” action-comedy (Pain and Gain) while previous blockbuster Jurassic Park gets an unnecessary, but still intriguing 3D update. Of course, if you’re located near one of the major movie metropolises in the media world - read: LA, New York, Chicago, or Miami (?) - you also have access to many independent and foreign films. They too could provide a respite beyond the basic mainstream muck.
But for most film fans, such selections are a VOD or On Demand click away at best. Instead, they are stuck, stuck with a Cineplex milking as many screenings of the latest faux tentpole the studios send out as they can. In many cases, success is not measured in movie quality, but in a kind of cinematic lesser of several evils. Scan your local listings now and see if that’s not true. And it’s double so when you have kids. Something like the Ice Age or Madagascar franchise consistently sells because parents want a given, something they know they can sit their kiddies in front of and feel comfortable and content. No stress over content or issue with something untried. Indeed, the reason the opening weekend has become so crucial to the Hollywood business model is the notion that, what works immediately will work in the limited long term. No time for a title to gain “legs.” No need for telltale Twitter word of mouth. No big picture. No risk.
You can sell Oz on the basis of the first film, the abundant special effects, or the cultural cache of references that have sprung forth from it since. You can even use Steve Carrell and Jim Carrey to give Burt Wonderstone a ‘you know them’ lift. Even The Host can make the most of its connection to Bella and Edward. But if the film stinks, nothing can salvage it. Not high tech visual pyrotechnics, not elaborately staged and shot stunt work. Yes, there are films that work on such a basic level, but for the most part, greatness in one area can’t overcome crap in another. Bad acting ruins good story, and visa versa. In the case of the January through April amble, we have clear instances where more than one element failed, thereby guaranteeing its winter doldrums burial.
A few years back, it looked like things might change. 300 hit theaters with little more than a bunch of beefcake and a director’s credibility. It became a box office smash, and more importantly, an artistically relevant release. Then Tim Burton turned his take on Alice in Wonderland into an international billion dollar blockbuster, and ever since, the suits have decided on a single, suspicious strategy - find at least one over-budgeted spectacle to put in front of the people…globally…and wait for the billions to pour in. Again, the main focus is never local. Hollywood has outsourced its profit margin, making it very clear that international revenues (which can sometimes be between 65% and 85% of the overall take) are all that’s important.
So the next time you wonder why there’s nothing good playing down at the Bijou, remember this: somewhere, in some country, legions are lining up to confirm Tinseltown’s ‘us vs. them’ strategy. Yes, movies are bad because they are artistically bankrupt and lacking legitimate aesthetic merit, something we are reminded of the first four months of every year. As long as they have the world as their back-up plan, however, things won’t be changing anytime soon. Why? Because they don’t need to.