Thursday, March 24, 2016

Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Redbox

How movies are bad these days has changed by leaps and bounds, and it's partly to do with the current studio system. With fewer and fewer mid-range budgeted films, there's less room for filmmakers to learn their craft before moving on to the Jurassic Worlds of cinema. And with Disney currently operating as it does (and this may change due to filmmaker pressure at some point), the standard "one for them one for me" model isn't tenable. You make a hit movie for Disney/Marvel, they're not really in the business of making passion projects. Do you see Joss Whedon getting his next film going at Disney yet? Shouldn't he? Auteurism has been ceded to the studio/brand. Who senses that Justin Lin touch in Fast Five, or James Wan's hand in Furious 7? J.J. Abrams and Sam Mendes are hit directors whose biggest hits mark their films as professionally made, but with little sense of the filmmaker behind them (at least in their franchise work). 

Twenty years ago, I would go see films that might be bad, because you never knew. In 1996, critics were just likely to be dismissive of Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy as they were The Frighteners, as they were Kazaam, as they were whatever Jean Claude Van Damme was doing at the time (in this case Maximum Risk). Sometimes they were right, but also, they may not have grasped what Hong Kong filmmakers were doing with craft as they used JCVD to make whatever insane piece of art they were after. Reasonably budgeted movies had a certain autonomy. But even the big summer films of twenty years ago often had the stamp of the director, of someone or something behind it that wasn't a brand. Here's a list of the top ten films of 1996:

1) Independence Day
2) Twister
3) Mission: Impossible
4) Jerry Maguire
5) Ransom
6) 101 Dalmatians
7) The Rock
8) The Nutty Professor
9) The Birdcage
10) A Time to Kill

Five of these are definitely products of their director, but even of the most cynical it's hard to say that something like Twister or Independence Day were noted to death. Fox heads may have had some input in ID4 (a film I like), but the film seems to be a pleasure machine based on what audiences had liked before as surmised by the filmmakers. It feels naive in its cynicism; it loves its cliches. Two of these seem like straight-ahead hackwork: Dalmatians and Twister - but even Twister, bad as it is, was mostly a success due to audiences reacting to changing technologies, much as people responded to 3D regarding Avatar. A Time to Kill is just Joel Schumacher adapting a popular novel so it's a non-starter, benign. I would find it hard to say any of these films are truly great, but I would say most are entertaining, and have personality.

I've seen all of the Marvel proper movies in theaters, and have hated a couple (looking at you Thor), so it's not that I get angry at all studio-run projects, but when big movies are bad these days, there is nothing for someone who loves films to get all that excited about, but this also points out why the best Marvel movies often have the stamp of their director(s). The turning point for me with trusting criticism of big budget movies is two-fold: Critics are now more sensitive than ever to geek concerns, and bad studio product movies are bad in ways that make them no fun to read/watch.

As for the first point, well, let's face it: geeks won. Ain't it Cool may not be the powerhouse it once was, but it seeds are planted, and not just at Hitfix. Critics who are in their thirties and forties grew up with Spielberg and Lucas, and though they may not even be versed in Hitchcock (to be fair, many are), they aren't as snobbish as the old guard who may have worshiped Cukor and Stevens and Stanley Fucking Kramer. The old guard are the ones who favored films like Out of Africa, or Gandhi, or Chariots of Fire, films that have no great value these days, the people who may have given The Artist four stars. I may not always agree with Devin Faraci, or Drew McWeeney, or Eric Vespe, or a number of the film critics that (full disclosure) I've known socially (in some cases just online) for years, but I know that they are nerds/geeks/whatever the polite descriptions of indoors kids are. Or, more to the point, they are the target audience. And as time passes, at least for the foreseeable future, this will only grow more the case as Hollywood churns out films based on the brands critics grew up with.

The second point is that I saw Star Trek Into Darkness in theaters, and that was a film that I made a promise to myself after, and that promise was that I wasn't going to pay to see a film that I knew I would hate simply to be a part of the conversation. This advice has served me well, as I skipped The Amazing Spider Man 2, Jurassic World and many more in the theater. I caught up with them on home video, and they proved to be as bad - if not worse - than I feared/heard at the time. I hate beating up on films like Fantastic Four or Terminator Genysis, but they seem a product of current Hollywood thinking as much as anything, and when they hit home video, there were no champions for it, and it's unlikely that auteurism 3.0 in twenty years will make a great case for these films. These are not the sort of detritus that turn out to be hidden greatness. I know this because I could find that in the films of twenty years ago while I was watching them. I could be proven wrong, and would love to be, but it comes down to voice, and what marks these films is a lack of it, or a lack of an original one.

The problem is that without that voice, without a sense of real guidance, these films are bad in ways that aren't interesting. Say what you will about Sucker Punch, but that's a fascinatingly bad/misguided film. That's a film that's after something, that's trying to say something and may have utterly failed in doing so, but it is also after something beyond branding. Even Man of Steel, as flawed as that movie is, has a guiding voice and an idea behind it, whereas with so much of modern cinema it doesn't take sunglasses to read that the main idea behind them is CONSUME. And on some sort of political level, I can't support paying for art that is so cynical. At the end of the day, the Marvel films are usually at best fun rides, but it's hard to say they're more than that. The same goes for the new Star Wars (which I like), but at least they're enjoyable. And it makes me wish more people would give a director ten million dollars to make a film with Jean Claude Van Damme and leave them well enough alone. You might get shit, but you might get art. Throwing half a billion dollars at a filmmaker that has a checklist that's more important than the story? Fuck off.