Showing posts with label Anne Thompson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anne Thompson. Show all posts

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Anne Thompson, Toy Movies, District 9, and the Indie/Popular Divide

I am a great admirer of Anne Thompson and find the majority of her coverage of Hollywood to be insightful, and to be honest "must reading." But there are times when I just have to cross her name off of the Holiday card list, and her recent post discussing the merits of District 9 while excoriating Hollywood for making films like GI Joe is one of those times.

Certainly, Thompson is right to praise a film like District 9 which manages to bring to the big screen quality science fiction at a budget price. Geekerati plans to do a show this weekend begging the question, "is there an inverse relationship between budget and the quality of an SF film?" Where Anne wanders off into the hinterlands of privilege, snobbery, killjoydom, and filmic cultural selectivity is when she writes, "That’s why I want G.I. Joe to take a dive this weekend (sorry Lorenzo Di Bonaventura), not because I want Paramount to lose money but because I want the Transformers-blinded studios to see that derivative toy movies are not the only way to go." Even worse, she goes on to claim that Hollywood executives, "In their search for franchises and tentpoles... ignore the obvious: most of them were once originals, from Star Wars and Lethal Weapon to The Matrix and Raiders of the Lost Ark."

One find's it hard to believe that a journalist covering Hollywood could write such passages, that is unless the same journalist happens to be wearing her Blinders of Public Disdain +5. Apparently, Anne owns a pair of those not so rare magic items -- or maybe she has the powerful artifact Schiller's Monocle of Aesthetic Disdain. Whatever the case may be, her statements are not only disrespectful of a particular audience demographic (Gen X and younger males), but are just plain incorrect at one level -- she is correct in stating "studios often forget what their customers really want: something new that they’ve never seen before". She just forgets that they equally want something that they are nostalgic for.

It's one thing to assert Anne's wrongheadedness, but one must address the individual statements and analyze them as well.

First, why should Anne want GI JOE to fail because she "want[s] the Transformers-blinded studios to see that derivative toy movies are not the only way to go?" Is it necessary for studios to fail for them to see that movies inspired by nostalgia for a particular intellectual property aren't the only way to go?

Not a chance.

If the films should be required to fail, it should be because they fail to inspire the same level of awe that was created by the intellectual property audiences feel nostalgia for in the first place. Hollywood should make hundreds of "derivative toy movies" if they manage to capture the mystique of the original IP -- especially if they are profitable. Transformers has failed to do this twice, largely because they have erred to much on the side of making adolescents laugh and not enough on telling a good story. This is the opposite error that many childrens movies make today, the modern kid flick spends to much time making sure to wink at the adults in the audience and not enough time telling a compelling story. If Transformers 2 had fewer "ball" jokes, and a more coherent narrative, the film would have been amazing. Sadly, that was not the case. It's hard to say that Transformers had a derivative narrative, since it's hard to say what the narrative of the film even was -- other than giant robots blowing stuff up.

This isn't true of GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The Joe film managed to have an underlying narrative that was fairly original.

[Spoiler Alert that contains information that even those who saw the movie may not have understood] Cobra's plan was to replace the President of the United States with a Cobra agent so that when a major terrorist attack took place the world would turn to the US for leadership, only to end up under the direct control of the terrorist group behind the attack.[End Spoiler Alert]

That's a pretty cool underlying premise. The execution of the film is flawed, as the film tries to do to much in some areas and not enough in others, but that's not a particularly derivative story. In fact, in structure and execution one could argue that the GI JOE film is the true heir to the 007 films of Connery and Moore -- as the Craig movies are more a return to the tone and feel of the novels. One can argue that Joe wasted money on cast, money it didn't need to spend, since it is the IP and not the cast that brings one to a nostalgia fest, but one shouldn't argue that it was derivative. "Original?" No. "Awe Inspiring?" No. But if one imagines what the collective mind of 12 year old boys in 1984 want out of a Joe film, one gets a film pretty close to what ended up on the screen. That was the point, to fuel and feed off of nostalgia.

Even more to the point of it not being "necessary for studios to fail for them to see that movies inspired by nostalgia for a particular intellectual property aren't the only way to go?" Let's look at some very successful films from the past decade that break from the "tent pole" assumptions. My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mama Mia! by themselves provide ample proof that lower budget movies aimed at a "non-tent pole" audience (read: not 18-35 males) can make an amazing amount of profit. It is necessary that non-extravaganzas be made and be successful for studios to see these films have value. The more that are made, the more that will be the studios. Studios will go where the money is. It is easy to do a Net Present Value analysis of an existing IP, with an established fan base. It is much more difficult to do one on an unknown idea. You have to be willing to take a risk and lose money, and that's something that business people don't like to do. They don't like to spend good money after bad.

Want to watch your investment money disappear faster than an addiction to crystal meth? Invest in an independent movie that you believe in. Risky films are risky. That's why Hollywood, which is risk averse because it likes profits, doesn't make a lot of these films. Show them that the risk isn't as big as they believe, and you can and will see more films like Juno.

Never mind the logical fallacy that "toy movies" need to fail for studios to learn there are other options, even more egregious is Thompson's assertion that "most of them [tentpoles] were once originals, from Star Wars and Lethal Weapon to The Matrix and Raiders of the Lost Ark." Originals? Really? Are you serious? I'll give you The Matrix (just), but the others?

Can Thompson actually believe that Star Wars, a masterful combination of the narratives of Hidden Fortress and the Flash Gordon serials -- which includes frames lifted straight out of Flash Gordon, is original? Shoot me now. Star Wars is amazing, but it is highly derivative. It is homage.

The same is true for the Allan Quartermain inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark. Could this movie exist without King Solomon's Mines? Not a chance. Raiders is phenomenal because it captures the essence of the old serials and combines it with the raw fun of H. Rider Haggard's tales. As an aside, King Kong is a combination of Haggard's tales with Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Raiders appealed to a nostalgia in a particular generation and did it so well it created nostalgia in a new one.

If Thompson is even trying to hint at the fact that Hollywood's great movies were "original," I can already feel the milk bubbling through my nose from the laughter.

Gone with the Wind? Based on a novel.
Wizard of Oz? Based on a novel.
West Side Story? Based on a Broadway musical, based on Romeo and Juliet.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)? Based on a Dashiell Hammett novel and had three theatrical versions between 1931 and 1941. Three in a decade before they made a great version?!
Yojimbo? Based on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest with a touch of The Glass Key thrown in for good measure.
Rashomon? Based on a short story.

I could go on and on and on. Hollywood isn't in the business of making "original" stories. Heck, film makers aren't in the business of making "original" stories. Hollywood is in the business of making money. Film makers are in the business of entertaining. Sometimes they entertain us with original ideas, and some times they entertain us with familiar ones. I put no preference on either category. I just want to be entertained...and sometimes educated when I'm feeling Aristotelian.

As for District 9? I'm excited about this combination of Alien Nation, V, and Cry Freedom. Though I do share some of Science Fiction author Steven Barnes' concerns.

Truth is, there is a lot of truth in Anne's article. Hollywood should remember that there is a relationship between risk and reward. The higher the risk, the greater the potential reward. Films like GI JOE may have a predictable NPV, but they aren't going to provide the high levels of profitability that something like My Big Fat Greek Wedding are going to bring.

Hollywood should take some risks.

But need to stop hating the male Gen X and younger audience. We just want to be reminded of those afternoons when we and our friends made up stories while playing with our GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS action figures.

Monday, August 03, 2009

THE HURT LOCKER: Anne Thompson Interviews Kathryn Bigelow

Film news analyst/reporter, and sometime critic, Anne Thompson has migrated her insightful film industry column away from industry dinosaur Variety over to the IndieWire blog network. The column keeps its "Thompson on Hollywood" title and Thompson continues to provide high value content.

In a recent post, Thompson opines on the Oscar worthiness of Kathryn Bigelow's latest film THE HURT LOCKER which is an early dark horse candidate. Embedded below is the 8 minute interview Thompson recorded with Bigelow at the Toronto Film Festival.

Thompson's move to Indie Wire would seem to be a good match for the analyst. Historically, Thompson seems to favor "independent films" -- by which she typically means "art film" rather than movies like Evil Dead, though there are exceptions -- and it was always a slightly awkward fit at the industry oriented magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter where she formerly hosted her columns. Her move from Variety comes after her print column had been canceled by the magazine and her duties had been completely shifted over to Variety's digital portal. She had been a Deputy Editor for the magazine before they made her a full-time blogger, a shift that no doubt included a substantial reduction in pay and benefits. Variety, like The Hollywood Reporter, doesn't quite seem to know how best to use the internet -- or print -- in its business model.

The move away from Variety appears, on the surface, to be less contentious than her move away from The Hollywood Reporter. When she left The Hollywood Reporter for Variety, The Hollywood Reporter made her leave her column masthead Risky Business behind. It didn't matter to THR that Thompson had been writing a column of that title since her days as an analyst at LA Weekly, they wanted to benefit from the reputation that Thompson had built up while working at THR. Risky Business has tried hard to live up to Thompson's legacy, but has continually fallen short.

This blogger's respect for Thompson's columns shouldn't be read as blind worship, Thompson has significant blind spots in her analysis. Her vision of Hollywood's past, with regard to quality and originality, is sheer fantasy. Her love of independent film often leads her to overlook excellent blockbuster fare. Not to mention that her obsession with "independent film," has as its foundation a fairly narrow definition of what constitutes independent. She also, as seems so often today among film analysts and reviewers in the post-internet era, seems to find it difficult to avoid being a political blogger from time to time. She is far from perfect, but she is very much worth reading if you want a more sophisticated view of the industry than you'll get from the "hype mags."

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Are Movies Worse Today? 1967 vs. 1987

As mentioned in a prior post, Anne Thompson commented recently, in a post about changes in the number of films the Academy will review for Best Picture, that "bottom line though, the Academy had more quality films to choose from then than they do now." We're putting this claim to the test.

A respected commenter added a clarifying note regarding the "Are Classic Movies Better" post. Professor Nokes reminded Cinerati of the importance of specificity when using language, by pointing out that by definition Classic movies are better. Classic movies, by definition, being old movies that have withstood the test of time -- the canon of film if you will. Since our contention is not that Classic movies are no better than Modern films, rather that films made in prior decades are not on average better than Modern films, this is a useful correction.

I would have been better served to use the post-structuralist "Classic," rather than the literal Classic, as that use has the implied irony I was attempting to bring to the front. That a film was made in some bygone era doesn't automatically mean the film is a genuine Classic, at least that is the assertion of this series. Though I would love to use the ironic post-structural word in the future, I won't use it. In order to remain clear, I will now call films made during prior decades Older films rather than Classic films. Certainly, some of the films are Classics (but so are some Modern films), but all of them are Older.

Now that I have clarified the purpose of this series, let's move on to the first comparison.

Below is the list of the 1967 nominees for best picture with the addition of Anne Thompson's film historian friend's +5. This list will be followed by some Cinerati commentary, the list of the 1987 nominees plus my +5, and some closing commentary.

1967 original nominees

  • In the Heat of the Night [winner]
  • Bonnie and Clyde
  • Doctor Dolittle
  • The Graduate
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?


  • Camelot
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • In Cold Blood
  • The Dirty Dozen
  • Two for the Road

There are two things that become clear from looking at the list of films above. First, 1967 was a pretty good year for movies. Quite a few of my favorite films are in that nominees+5 list. I am particularly enamored of Doctor Dolittle due to memories from my childhood of watching the film on VHS with my grandfather. Second, one can quickly see just from the films that 1967 was a year where the USA was undergoing some cultural shifts. The massive violence of Bonnie and Clyde was shocking to some audiences, two of the films deal heavily with race issues, the role of sexual liberation in Camelot's portrayal of Guenevere, are all indicative of the changes the society was facing at the time.

I would argue though that two of these films would be laughed at by modern critics, if viewed without the rose colored glasses of nostalgia. I love Doctor Dolittle and think it is a great film. But if it had come out in 2009 rather than 1967 (as exactly the same picture), the film would be derided as frivolous childhood fare not worthy of artistic consideration. If this weren't true, we would see films like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone nominated for Best Picture. Potter received three Oscar nominations, had a stellar cast of brilliant British actors, but was not nominated for Best Picture. My guess is because as children's fare it is taken less seriously, this is further evinced by the fact that the BAFTAs nominated it for Best Children's Feature. Surely, one can argue that I am overstating things, but based on my discussions with current film critics I don't believe it to be the case. The older critics seem too "sophisticated" and the younger critics are often too "gothtentious" to consider a film like Dolittle for an Oscar nod -- particularly over a film like Cool Hand Luke.

I could make a similar argument for why modern critics would overlook Camelot, not for its childishness. In this case, Camelot would be overlooked for being "over done." It's a very good film. I find its representation of Guenevere to be extremely unsympathetic, and think it flawed in that regard, but the acting, singing, and narrative are extremely compelling.

I can take or leave The Graduate. For me it is a film too deeply rooted in its era to inspire or challenge me. It's well shot, well acted, entertaining, but in the end uninspiring. I'll watch Cool Hand Luke over The Graduate any day of the week.

All in all, 1967 was a still a very good year for movies. How does 1987 compare?

1987 original nominees

  • The Last Emperor [winner]
  • Broadcast News
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Hope and Glory
  • Moonstruck


  • Empire of the Sun
  • Raising Arizona
  • Full Metal Jacket
  • Good Morning, Vietnam
  • Cry Freedom

Looking at the list above, one might believe that I stacked the deck against Anne by choosing 1987. I should also note that the +5 part of the list comes not from my own opinions, but from Tim Dirks of Filmsite. When I saw his discussion of overlooked films, I found I agreed with him and thus used those rather than create my own +5 which would have looked pretty much the same. With the exception of the over-rated at the time Fatal Attraction, 1987 is a very good year for films receiving Academy consideration -- and would be with the +5 rule as well.

Like 1967, one can see the social issues of the day reflected in the important films of the year. Broadcast News was an entertaining look at news media that demonstrated how society was beginning to see that what was presented to us as "news" was in many ways mere show business. One thinks that James L. Brooks wouldn't find something like TMZ suprising, upsetting maybe but not surprising. The Last Emperor is a touching tale brought to the big screen in the final years of the Cold War. It is a touching film that looks at humanity and the transition of a culture from Empire to Revolution to Stability -- a culture that is still undergoing the process depicted in the film.

Hope and Glory is ostensibly about a child living in England throughout WWII, but one can easily see reflections of Cold War sentiments underlying the tensions of the film. While most Gen X-ers hadn't undergone drills showing them what to do in case of a nuclear attack, as Boomers had experienced, but they still lived with an underlying dread rooted in the potential of nuclear war. Hope and Glory in depicting life in a London suburb during WWII, demonstrated that while war is a time of constant upheaval it is also a time that can be endured.

Two of the films in the +5 are narratives that take place during the Vietnam War, a conflict from which America was very much in need of healing in the 1980s (and still today). The movies come at the conflict from different narrative perspectives -- one is a drama and one is a dramedy -- but they each have power.

Cry Freedom is as politically important a film as one can imagine. Denzel Washington's performance as Steven Biko makes one wish this was more a film about Biko and less a film about a heroic journalist (played by Kevin Kline) who will tell his tale.

If you don't recognize Raising Arizona as one of the all-time great comedies, you lack a sense of humor. In the film, the Coen brothers put their ability to tell epic stories about mundane characters on high display.

Looking at the Academy films (and +5s) from 1967 and 1987, I don't think the Academy had remarkably better films to judge in the earlier year. Both years are very strong. One can make an argument that 1967 is stronger, but I think one could equally make an argument that 1987 is stronger.

I'd also like to go a little deeper into the respective years. The quality of the film industry shouldn't merely be measured by the "Academy worthy" films of a given year. Many genuine Classics are films I would never argue should win an Oscar. One doesn't immediately think "Best Picture" when one is watching Bringing Up Baby, but one does certainly think it is a Classic. It is simply one of the most entertaining films ever made. How do 1967 and 1987 stack up when it comes to the entertaining films offered?

Cinerati's 10 Best Non-Oscar "Entertainment" Films of 1967 in No Particular Order
  • A Fistful of Dollars
  • Valley of the Dolls
  • Bedazzled
  • The Jungle Book
  • Point Blank
  • To Sir With Love
  • You Only Live Twice
  • In Like Flint
  • The Good the Bad and the Ugly

That's a pretty good list of entertaining films. I am particularly fond of the Moore/Cook comedy Bedazzled. Most of these films are films that people still watch and most are considered classics. It should be noted that Barefoot in the Park and For a Few Dollars More were also released in 1967. You Only Live Twice is arguably the first use of Ninja in a "Western" film. Point Blank has a darkness that the more recent Mel Gibson version of the story Payback lacks. Unarguably, 1967 was a good year for movies in general and not just Award worthy films. But it is also the year one of my least favorite films was made. The lame and contrived Casino Royale comedy was released that year, a film to metacognitive for its own good.

What about 1987?

Cinerati's 10 Best Non-Oscar "Entertainment" Films of 1987 in No Particular Order
  • Lethal Weapon
  • Evil Dead II
  • Predator
  • The Untouchables
  • The Princess Bride
  • 3 Men and a Baby
  • Overboard
  • Near Dark
  • Dirty Dancing

1987 also saw the release of La Bamba, Robocop, The Secret of My Succe$s, River's Edge, Inner Space, Baby Boom, No Way Out, and The Monster Squad. It's hard to compete with the Spaghetti Western trilogy of Clint Eastwood, so 1967 wins for being bad ass. But it should be noted that much of the entertaining fare of 1987 is very entertaining. The Princess Bride is a wonderfully enchanting tale that people will be watching for generations to come. Overboard is a romantic comedy that ranks up in my enjoyment factor with Bringing Up Baby -- as are Baby Boom and 3 Men and a Baby for that matter.

Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark is one of my favorite vampire films and is must see for any fans of the HBO True Blood series. The vampires in Bigelow's film are a refreshing alternative from the sexy and alluring vampires typically presented, these are stone cold killers on a rampage. It's also an important film because Bigelow demonstrated, as she continues to demonstrate, that women directors can very ably direct things other than "women's films."

1967 wins because of the Spaghetti Western trilogy, but 1987 is one heck of a fun year for movie fans.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Are Modern Films Really Worse than Classic Films? A Blog Series Introduction

On the 24th of June, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Academy members would vote for Best Picture from a selection of 10 films rather than the 5 that had become standard. They assert that this is a return to an older Academy tradition and are pitching the change by doing a bi-coastal screening of the 10 films nominated in 1939 -- an amazing year for movies.

In response to the announcement, Anne Thompson shared the contents of an email a film historian sent her which listed an "imaginary" additional five nominees for the years 1967 through 1979 as a demonstration of films that had been overlooked by the Academy in years past. It's a fun read, filled with some pretty keen analysis.

In her introduction to the email, Thompson asserts, "Bottom line though, the Academy had more quality films to choose from then than they do now."

Such a statement immediately begs the question, "Really?! The Academy had more quality films to choose from then than they do now?" I find the statement to be on the face incredible -- traditional definition -- and a bit knee-jerk in the certitude of the statement. Certainly, my own reaction to the statement is knee-jerk as well. My assumption is that Thompson is wrong, but is she? The only way to find out is to do a year to year comparison continuing from a date after 1979 and comparing it to past years. One could easily write a book on the subject if one wanted to do an in depth analysis, one could probably write a book merely on what the best methodology to use for comparison.

I have neither the will, nor the luxury of time to do that. So I offer the following. I will create my own "nominee+5" lists for each year starting in 1987 and compare that year to the year twenty years prior. Thus 1987 will be compared to 1967. Each list will be done in a single blog post. After I have completed the first set, I will begin again in 1997 and compare to a year 30 years prior. The +5 "best of year x" list will be one of my own choosing, and thus will hopefully spark conversation as you may believe that some other films deserve to be in the +5. The merit of a given year won't merely rest on my own +5, but include those anyone else can think of as well. After all, we are measuring whether the "now" holds a candle to the "then." That, and not whether my specific choices are the best, is the question that should be discussed.

Stay tuned to this blog for 1987 vs. 1967, the first in a series of posts.