Tag Archives: blockbusters

Wolverine’s Swan Song

Logan & Laura

“This repression of the ‘non-serious’ aspects of pleasure, of a discourse of fun, is not, of course, a total exclusion. Notions of distraction, diversion, and entertainment have appeared with regularity in the academic discourse on cinematic pleasure. Yet, within that discourse, they are almost invariably positioned as negative terms. They are often figured as decadent – betrayals of truth, morally corrupt, politically incorrect – or, at best, as escapist or trivial. Indeed, it seems that the vast majority of the academic ‘discourse on pleasure’ has been calculated to distinguish between these ‘corrupt’ pleasures and more acceptable, ‘serious’ pleasures.”

-R.L. Rutsky & Justin Wyatt, Serious Pleasures: Cinematic Pleasure And The Notion Of Fun, 1990

Most of the films that American audiences see or hear about are designed to maximize public appeal, to gross highly, and to entertain. With this set of priorities, the mainstream, the most commercial of American cinema, cannot afford much in the way of serious artistic expression. If we accept Rutsky and Wyatt’s arguments, then the films that come out of the major studios enter into critical discourse as “corrupt pleasures” insofar as these films primarily represent distractions, diversions and entertainment.

James Mangold’s Logan (2017) fits within this niche easily. It’s a major blockbuster and an installment within a well proven franchise of movies that has been turning a healthy profit in cinemas for seventeen years now. However, unlike most films within a franchise, Logan dares to challenge the genre to which it was born (so to speak).  J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) is a far more typical representation of how a franchise functions, evidencing how best to keep the grosses consistent: more of the same, again and again. Logan is not just alone in the X-Men movie franchise because of its rating, Logan is also a character study, and a film whose narrative devices have been absent from the superhero genre. In fact Logan has more in common narratively with Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World (1993), Luc Besson’s The Professional (1994), Takashi Miike’s Rainy Dog (1997), James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) than it does with any of the Batman, X-Men, Avengers, Spiderman, Superman, Ironman, or Guardians Of The Galaxy movies that have come out in the last twenty years or more.

Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart

The primary reason Logan does not fit within the aesthetic blueprint of the superhero genre is because the film prioritizes its three lead characters over the spectacle of violence. Mangold’s film is interested in the frailties of his superpowered characters, and populates his film with moments that allow these frailties to function as a direct counterpoint to the sequences of action-violence that the audience is expecting. The narrative of Logan is designed for this kind of investigation into character much in the same way as A Perfect World, Rainy Dog, The Professional and Gloria are. Every time the audience finds comfort in the familiar heroic antics of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Professor X (Patrick Stewart), and X-23/Laura (Dafne Keen) that comfort is in turn subverted. The scenes of Wolverine caring for Professor X are particularly adept at subverting the standards of superhero fare.

Logan is also unique for assuming that its target audience, comic book fans, will be in tune with the characters introduced in the narrative to a degree that Mangold can forgo the usual scenes of expository action. Besides, one does not need an in depth working knowledge of The Reavers, Dr. Rice or Albert within the context of the Wolverine comics to understand their narrative function. If one is familiar with this set of Wolverine #40, June, 1991characters, that is simply just another layer of pleasure that Logan has to offer. One of the great drawbacks to the superhero genre in film is that the authors of these films assume that the films will not work if they are not “all inclusive” in terms of their narrative accessibility. The best superhero films, Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978), and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) all operate on the assumption that an audience even vaguely familiar with the characters will be able to glean from the film an understanding of these characters and their respective narrative complexes in other media forms.

There has been a tremendous amount of hype surrounding Logan. If one were to read Kevin P. Sullivan’s article in the March 10th issue of Entertainment Weekly, one may very well assume that Logan was the greatest film of its kind ever made. However, Logan can never escape what it is, a “distraction, diversion, and entertainment”. And, for me at least, this isn’t a bad thing at all. 

-Robert Curry

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Holding Out For A Hero

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When Bonnie Tyler recorded Holding Out For A Hero for the film Footloose in 1984 it’s certain that she had no idea that her song would epitomize the sentiments of the American people as we prepare to elect Obama’s successor to the presidency.  A “hero” is just what the U.S. needs.  However, none of the candidates in the running quite fit the romanticized description of the song.  Luckily we are fortunate that an answer to Bonnie Tyler’s song and our needs as a nation does exist in the cinema in the form of Harrison Ford.

Air Force One (1997) trades on the image of Harrison Ford in our culture as no other movie has.  His character, President James Marshall, exists in name only; his character is simply the accumulation of Ford’s career in the movies up to that point.  President James Marshall is capable of the charm of Jack Trainer, David Holloran and Linus Larrabee, the resourcefulness of Indiana Jones and Allie Fox, the traditional family values of Jack Ryan, Henry Turner and Dr. Richard Walker, the determination of Dr. Richard Kimble, Rick Deckard and Det. John Book, and the sarcasm of Han Solo.  President James Marshall is the idealized white heterosexual male of three generations of film goers primed to defend the American dream to the last breath.

And who better to helm a fantasy film of American politics and nail-biting action than Wolfgang Petersen?  Air Force One could easily be described as In The Line Of Fire (1993) reset within the world of The NeverEnding Story (1984).  A German, Petersen’s view of America and it’s fetishization of actors and Hollywood symbols is akin to that of Sirk and Fassbinder in that this plastic brand of the American Dream is as preposterous as it is frightening.  In many ways Petersen’s Air Force One revels ironically (consider the choice of music cues for one) in its own ability to offer Americans a unique wish fulfilled in seeing Harrison Ford as our Commander and Chief; a president who perfectly represents an amalgamation of JFK for the post-Vietnam America.  It was never anyone’s wish to see Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Martin Sheen or John Travolta as our president anyway.

The passage of time has also helped to further fetishize Harrison Ford as the U.S. President.  Not only are Americans nostalgic for the wealth and power we enjoyed as a nation in the 1990s, but our feelings toward terrorism have also drastically changed.  In 1997 the World Trade Center still stood.  Today, however, Ford’s policy of literally going toe to toe against terrorists would seem too good to be true for most Americans.  Obama certainly hasn’t thrown any “bad guys” off of Air Force One lately (and I’m afraid Donald Trump might throw the whole country from a plane).

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Air Force One is so heavy-handed in its own self-awareness and desire to fulfill its audience that it escapes reality altogether.  If I were to compare it to Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story I would have to say that Air Force One is more representative of fantasy.  Yet I do not mean this negatively.  Air Force One is a tremendous fantasy that engaged a nation in 1997, representing desires en masse.  This is the power of the cinema and the ultimate goal of any Hollywood feature.  Yet, if one should ever find themselves too immersed in the fantastic escape of Air Force One, remember Harrison Ford’s words to Donald Trump, “Donald, it was a movie.”

-Robert Curry

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Post-Modern Spectacles

With regards to the cinema, a spectacle is a series of images endowed with sensational content meant to tantalize an audience.  These images may occur in one single scene of a film or throughout.  What makes these particular images a spectacle is the fact that they function around a superficial stimulation of the audience derived from either the sex appeal of an actor, the scale of a special effect, or a pervasiveness in violence and gore.  Certain films employ the spectacle throughout, and rely on the spectacle to entertain the audience, keeping them hooked with superficial thrills.

Spectacle is the defining attribute of mainstream narrative filmmaking in America today.  And what is the mainstream? Any film produced by or distributed by one of the five major Hollywood studio conglomerates, ranging in style and genre from the popular Harry Potter franchise, Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby (2013) to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2013) and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises (2012). These films have been born out, in terms of their aesthetic execution and concern with mass marketability, of a long standing tradition in Hollywood that has only become more and more distilled with the advent of the blockbuster or “event” film. This trend towards spectacle is a post-modern notion, dependent not only on the most rudimentary genre conventions and narrative tropes but also careful market research. As this trend has progressed, so has the bankruptcy of American film literacy.

Consider now the movie serials such as Flash Gordon and Superman. Each episode was carefully constructed to be the pinnacle of escapism and a total encapsulation of not only the serials’ genre, but also the narrative conventions that accompany the featured characters.  For instance it is inevitable that in any episode of a Superman serial that the title character would be featured in flight, that Jimmy Olsen and/or Lois Lane would get into trouble in search of a newspaper story that would some how end in a cliffhanger.  In this way, as television would quickly come to learn in the following decade, the serial not only gave the audience what it demanded (and every time with only the slightest moderation) but also left that audience craving more of the same.  The contemporary notion of spectacle is simply a grandiose effort on behalf of the studios to cash in on these conventions.

George Lucas' Star Wars (1977)

George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977)

Of course the realization that a two-hour feature film with an astronomical budget could in fact function as a serial was very much the brainchild of director/producer George Lucas, whose Star Wars films popularized this technique for the first time in 1977. What Lucas and his Star Wars films did was to negate any topical political reading by ardently adhering to the conventions of the Science Fiction movie serial, a ploy that gave audiences a total escape from an America in the clutches of post-Watergate depression and a cinema of social and cultural awareness. These various components of the films and the socio-political climate into which they were released made Lucas millions of dollars.  The success of Star Wars inevitably spawned a multitude of equally successful imitations from the major studios such as Robert Wise’s Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979), Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie (1978), and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981).  All of these films are dependent not only on special effects, but pre-established character types (or in the case of Star Trek and Superman, pre-established characters and accompanying signifiers) as well as a single moral commentary.  For instance, Raiders Of The Lost Ark teaches us one rough idealistic American individual is all it takes to thwart the schemes of Fascism. Where Star Wars was content with its simplification of Joseph Campbell’s scholarly concept of good versus evil, these films branch out into a more sophisticated territory where one moral issue may be addressed.

It goes without saying that not all of these precursors to the contemporary notion of spectacle were franchises.  It just wasn’t necessary to adopt the serial format literally if films of a particular genre stuck to what is best described as a stylistic blueprint. A film like Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) resembles Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) enough that audiences were happy to ignore Jurassic Park’s many short comings, much in the same way Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996) is indebted to Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). Producers like Jerry Bruckheimer who were smart enough to bank on this format in the nineties were almost always assured a large return on their investments.  However, when one makes a film like The Rock (1996) you have to one up the star caliber and the special effects while maintaining a simplicity of narrative and character development in a follow-up feature, Con-Air (1997) and once again with the epic Armageddon (1998).  Other films that have counted on this format and audience trends and were able to find considerable success were Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998), Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible (1996), Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990), Martin Campbell’s Goldeneye (1995), Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Chuck Russell’s Eraser (1996), Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998), Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), John Woo’s Face/Off (1997), Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (1987), Jonathan Frakes’ Star Trek: First Contact (1996), Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), Brian DePalma’s Snake Eyes (1998), Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991), Robert Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump (1994) and many more.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988)

Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988)

There have been successful attempts at combining the spectacle of action and violence or the budding romance between two well-established film stars with more intellectual commentaries in certain films.  John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988) is a film that balances the cheap thrills of Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman sporting guns and puns with a sharp piece of social commentary and a sensibility for the ironic.  Die Hard’s balance of aesthetics, though not quite perfect, is derived from the film’s self-awareness. The satirical nature of Die Hard is not common place in the action genre nor in the popular blockbuster, whose very nature is to avoid self-awareness at all costs for fear of the audience stepping out of the blockbuster’s narrative and accessing the film for what it is, pure spectacle.  However, this dilemma, when coupled with nostalgia, is precisely what has made The Expendables franchise so successful in recent years.

Many of the conventions of the nineties blockbuster spectacle provide perfect examples of the ready-made signifiers apparent in films today. The Nicolas Cage character in The Rock is a geek, boasting about his recent acquisition of a rare Beatles LP.  But we also know he is “manly” because of the steamy sex scene he has shortly there after.  In this way Cage is the sexy nerd character type and the audience accepts that, and will look for and find similar signifiers in Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) and Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spiderman (2012).  This shorthand is the kind used in old film serials, and can therefore be equated to the archetypal character conventions on which Star Wars is entirely dependent.

This approach to minimalist characterization is perhaps best exemplified by The Great Gatsby. The characterization in this film is in fact so weak that it doesn’t exist at all.  Leonardo DiCaprio is Gatsby, but we don’t need to get to know or understand Gatsby because we, the audience, know DiCaprio from James Cameron’s Titanic (1998) and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004). DiCaprio is always sexy, he is always deep and with a hidden dark side, and he is a self made man; these are the attributes associated with the actor DiCaprio when he is on screen so that is what the audience projects onto him when he appears in the role of Gatsby. The same is also true for both Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (2013)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby (2013)

But just as characterization has suffered with an increased focus on spectacle in the name of profit, so has morality.  Though some films maintain a complicated philosophical commentary such as Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011), most films vie for the simplicity of Zach Snyder’s Man Of Steel (2013).  After over two hours of bravura special effects and gratuitous fight scenes better suited to a video game we find the moral of the film’s story is the same as Sam Raimi’s Spiderman (2002); with great power comes great responsibility, so don’t kill anyone Superman. Now if we return to Die Hard for a moment we can better chart the steady decline of moral complexity as the franchise continues from the original film of 1988 to the present.  After the original film, the social commentary and satirical sophistication abandoned the franchise with McTiernan’s departure.

The biggest problem is not that films aren’t especially sophisticated if they are blockbusters, but rather the ramifications these films have had on the cinema at large.  A film like Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan had all of the emotional and moral potential of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), but negated all of that for what amounts to nothing more than a rescue drama centered around a small group of men where each is representative of one clear character type and therefore without dimension.  The spectacle of the landing on the beach in Normandy, all forty minutes of murderous mayhem and alleged realism, is meant to stimulate the audience, to sell the film as a legitimate historical text into which the audience can therefore invest its trust. In this way audiences aren’t so quick to catch Spielberg’s adherence to a very conservative American notion of political correctness that is actually borderline racist (reconsider Amistad and Lincoln for a second).

This brings us back to the ramifications of these spectacles. If a spectacle is produced for a consumer, and the consumer wants more, so the spectacle gets bigger. Raising in turn the question where is there room for true artistic expression in mainstream cinema?

-Robert Curry

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The Cinema In Trouble

One always hopes that while watching a film, one experiences a sort of revelation as a result of some cinematic innovation, at least from a critical perspective. But in the last forty-eight hours, while attempting to “catch-up” with some recent films, I have watched three films from three different genres that offered so little that it shook my faith in a progressive cinema. Of course, as I am so fond of pointing out, the only real progression I have seen in American film recently has been in the “underground”, and in a few studio produced exceptions. But it was these three films, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), Hitchcock (2012), and Skyfall (2012) that any sort of cinematic expression was so void that it begged the question “why bother with the cinema at all?”

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Lets begin with Skyfall, the latest outing for Daniel Craig as James Bond, directed by Sam Mendes. Mendes is a highly theatrical director whose concerns with character development often manifest themselves in two-dimensional archetypes, at least in his films American Beauty (1999) and Road To Perdition (2002). Though the cinematography in Skyfall by Roger Deakins is unmistakably beautiful (as the cinematography often is in Mendes’ films) the plot and action captured in these visuals offers nothing that isn’t already available in the Connery, Moore, Dalton or Brosnan Bond films. What is most troubling is that Skyfall attempts to present the Ian Fleming created character as realistic and true to the novels. Yet, with Javier Bardem’s turn as the villain Silver and the referential scenes that are concerned with the campy Bond films that only just concluded under Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the lead, the film seems overly concerned with its own franchise, as if Skyfall would have preferred to have been a Bond film starring Roger Moore. Though Skyfall presents its self-awareness as a form of homage, the device only works to draw attention to the fact that Skyfall is only a step removed from Thunderball (1965) or Moonraker (1979). That is to say that despite what its marketing would have you believe, Skyfall is a Bond film just like all 22 others that preceded it.

Similarly Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is another blockbuster whose self-obsession prevents any meaningful exchange or insight to its audience. Jackson’s language of quick cuts, slow motion, and long tracking shots of New Zealand has become too recognizable and exhausting after three Lord Of The Rings films. What’s worse is that Jackson has even sought to recreate his original trilogy by breaking his adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit down into three films, often adding incidents from other Tolkien texts. This makes Jackson’s latest film nothing more than a reiteration of his particular cinematic language that takes no chances and leaves nothing for the audience except the most meager form of escapism.

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Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock isn’t as bad, and is almost redeemed by Helen Mirren’s remarkable performance as Alma Hitchcock. But Hopkins, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel tend to sleep walk through this little biopic just as it seems the film’s writer, John J. McLaughlin has. As Hitchcock dramatizes the making of Psycho it falls into the trap of similar biopics such as Attenborough’s Chaplin (1992) where name-dropping and casting celebrities as celebrities becomes a means of demonstrating a knowledge of film history. But Hitchcock as a film has little to do, technically speaking, with Hitchcock’s own cinematic technique and becomes nothing more than a fluff piece based around a loose narrative concerning marital monogamy. The issue of artistry and creativity are downplayed to such an extreme that they are almost inarticulate subtexts.
So why write about these three films? Because all films deserve critical appraisal so that the direction of the medium can be better understood and put into a useful context. What these three films are indicative of is a lack of anything to be said, of any ideas that the filmmakers feel is vital to communicate, a sort of laziness that is contagious and has obviously infected the audience as well. That these films managed to be blockbusters is testimony to the fact that most audiences are not demanding anything from the cinema except what is handed to them. This not only lowers the standards of the medium, but also bankrupts the intellectual integrity of the nation.

-Robert Curry

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From Nolan To Beatty: The Comic Book Blockbuster

In today’s blockbuster climate it is proving more difficult than ever to enjoy “superhero” films.  More and more these films seem to be just going through the motions, attempting to cash in on the fad before it dissipates.  If science fiction epics were the hit genre of the late seventies and early eighties, superhero blockbusters are the hit of today.  Sadly, films like Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man 2, Iron Man, Sam Raimi’s Spiderman franchise, and X-Men 3 appear to be cookie-cutter replicas of their predecessors such as X-Men and Batman Begins.  Yet, even these predecessors lack the inventiveness and cinematic style of the original Batman franchise.  At the least, Tim Burton’s Batman provided a blueprint for Batman in the nineties, just as Richard Donner’s Superman The Movie had for the previous decade.

Though these films make for great escapist fare, few rival Warren Beatty’s now often overlooked Dick Tracy.  What Beatty does is successfully translate the atmosphere and style of the comic into cinematic language.  The techniques of montage and high contrast compositions are cinematic hallmarks of the era associated with the classic comic strip.  Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography explodes with the vibrant color that defined the strip.  The great innovation though is in the editing.  To achieve the quick tommy gun pace of the comic, Beatty turned to MTV, and perhaps for the first time legitimized those aesthetics for a summer blockbuster.  The Dick Tracy screenplay doesn’t suffer from a lack of witty dialogue, but rather from a weak plot, a staple of most comic book films, none more painfully so than Christopher Nolan’s sloppy Dark Knight.

So why can’t filmmakers today create a meaningful film from the graphic medium?  Probably for two reasons.  One, the studios that produce these films want them churned out as quickly as possible to sell more merchandise and milk the trend for every penny.  Second, the filmmakers themselves are probably so concerned with lofty cinematic ambition that they confuse and inhibit their own film.  So one is left with two extremes.  Each extreme representing the absolute worse possibilities in the world of studio controlled filmmaking.

Is there an upside to all this?  Not that I can think of.  Eventually, like all fads, this one will fade and make way for a new blockbuster trend.  In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait it out.

-Robert Curry

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