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Posts posted by Sgt_Markoff

  1. Can't resist. One more piece for today--because its so rare --Mark Kermode's famous rant against blockbusters. It's published in his book, 'The Good, the Bad, and the Multiplex' but was excerpted on news sites around the web. Then, powers-that-be must have gotten irked and had it yanked. Anyway here it is, in full. You cant find it anymore.



    Every time I complain that a blockbuster movie is directorially dumb, or insultingly scripted, or crappily acted, or artistically barren, I get a torrent of emails from alleged mainstream-movie lovers complaining that I (as a snotty critic) am applying highbrow criteria that cannot and should not be applied to good old undemanding blockbuster entertainment. I am not alone in this; every critic worth their salt has been lectured about their distance from the demands of "popular cinema", or has been told that their views are somehow elitist and out of touch (and if you haven't been told this then you are not a critic, you are a "showbiz correspondent"). This has become the shrieking refrain of 21st-century film (anti)culture – the idea that critics are just too clever for their own good, have seen too many movies to know what the average punter wants, and are therefore sorely unqualified to pass judgment on the popcorn fodder that "real" cinema-goers demand from the movies.

    This is baloney – and worse, it is pernicious baloney peddled by people who are only interested in money and don't give a damn about cinema. The problem with movies today is not that "real" cinema-goers love garbage while critics only like poncy foreign language arthouse fare. The problem is that we've all learned to tolerate a level of overpaid, institutionalised corporate dreadfulness that no one actually likes but everyone meekly accepts because we've all been told that blockbuster movies have to be stupid to survive. Being intelligent will cause them to become unpopular. Duh! The more money you spend, the dumb and dumberer you have to be. You know the drill: "no one went broke underestimating the public intelligence". That's just how it is, OK?

    Well, actually, no. You want proof? OK. Exhibit A: Inception.

    Inception is an artistically ambitious and intellectually challenging thriller from writer/director Christopher Nolan, who made his name with the temporally dislocated low- budget "arthouse" puzzler Memento. Nolan unfashionably imagines that his audience are sentient beings, and treats them as such regardless of budget. Memento cost $5m, had no stars or special effects, aimed high nonetheless, expected its audience to keep up, and reaped over $25m in the US alone. Inception cost $160m, had huge stars and blinding special effects, aimed high nonetheless, expected its audience to keep up, and took around $800m worldwide. See a connection here?

    Nolan earned the right to make a movie as intelligent and expensive as Inception by grossing Warner Bros close to $1.5bn with 'Batman Begins' and 'The Dark Knight'. I remember burbling to Radio-5-Live listeners that 'Batman Begins' was "far smarter than any of us had the right to expect from a movie which cost that much". But why shouldn't it be smart? Why shouldn't we expect movies that "cost that much" to be worth it?

    Because we have been told for too long that popular movies must, by their very nature, be 'terrible', and we've all learned to accept this horrendous untruth.

    As for Inception, the idea that a "mainstream" audience could embrace a movie that includes the lines "Sorry, whose dream are we in?" and "He's militarised his subconscious!" would seem anathema to the studio heads (and their mealy- mouthed media minions), who have been telling us for decades that dumb is beautiful. Yet Nolan has become one of the most financially reliable directors working in Hollywood without ever checking his intellect in at the door. Did no one explain the rules to him? Did he miss a meeting?

    Don't get me wrong; Inception isn't perfect, nor is it "stunningly original", as some would have you believe. The plot, which revolves around explosive industrial espionage played out within the interlocking layers of an unsuspecting psyche, is essentially Dreamscape with A-levels and draws upon a number of populist sources, ranging from Wes Craven's horror sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street: Dream Warriors to Alejandro Amenábar's Spanish oddity Open Your Eyes (later remade in Hollywood as the inferior Tom Cruise vehicle Vanilla Sky). It is also, in essence, an existential Bond movie: On Her Majesty's Psychiatric Service. But like great pop music, groundbreaking cinema rarely arrives ex nihilo, and the fact that Nolan seems to have watched (and loved) a lot of genre trash in his time merely increases his significant stature in my eyes.

    Too many blockbuster movies nowadays seem to be made by people who hate cinema, who have seen too few movies, and who have nothing but contempt for the audiences who pay their grotesquely over-inflated salaries. So, did Inception become a money-spinning hit because it boasts a really smart script?

    I'd like to think so, but honestly, no.

    Would it have taken less money if it had been less intelligent?

    Maybe. Probably not. Who knows?

    Would it have taken more money if it been less intelligent?

    Maybe. Probably not. Who knows?

    Would it have made anything like that amount of money if it didn't include:

    a) an A-list star

    b) eye-popping special effects

    c) a newsworthy budget?

    Definitely not.

    So what does the success – both financial and artistic – of Inception prove? Simply this: that if you spend enough money, bag an A-list star and pile on the spectacle, the chances are your movie will not lose money, regardless of how smart or dumb it may be. Trying to be funny may be a massive risk (fail and your movie goes down) but trying to be clever never hurt anyone. Clearly, the exact amount of money a movie will ultimately make will be affected to some degree by whether or not anyone actually likes it; Titanic couldn't have become a record-breaking profit-maker if some people hadn't wanted to see it twice, and whatever my own personal problems with the film I concede that loads of people really do love it to pieces. But the fact remains that, if you obey the three rules of blockbuster entertainment, an intelligent script will not (as is widely claimed) make your movie tank or alienate your core audience. Even if they don't understand the film, they'll show up and pay to see it anyway – in just the same way they'll flock to see films that are rubbish, and which they don't actually enjoy. Like Pearl Harbor .

    This may sound like a terribly depressing scenario – that multiplex audiences will stump up for "event movies" regardless of their quality. But look at it this way: if the audiences will show up whether a movie is good or bad, then does the opportunity not exist to make something genuinely adventurous with little or no risk? If the studio's money is safe regardless of what they do, artistically speaking, why not do something of which they can be proud? If you're working in a marketplace in which the right kind of gargantuan expense all but guarantees equivalent returns, where's the downside in pushing the artistic envelope? Why dumb down when the dollar is going up?

    Why be Michael Bay when you could be Christopher Nolan? In fact, despite the asinine whining of those cultural collaborators who have invested their fortunes in the presumption of the stupidity of others, the blockbuster market arguably offers a level of artistic freedom that no other sector of film financing enjoys. The idea that creative risk must be limited to low or mid-priced movie-making (where you can in fact lose loads of money) while thick-headed reductionism rules the big-budget roost is in fact the very opposite of the truth.

    As David Puttnam has been saying for years, the biggest risk in Hollywood at the moment is making a mid-priced, artistically adventurous movie which has a great script but no stars or special effects, ie the kind of film that studios now view as potential financial Kryptonite. It is this area in which producers can most legitimately be forgiven for following a policy of cultural risk avoidance, because it is here that monetary shirts may still be lost. Remember – The Shawshank Redemption, a prison drama with no marquee-name stars or special effects, actually lost money in cinemas (it cost $35m, of which it recouped only $18m in its initial release period) before it went on to become one of the most popular movies of all time on home video. If it had cost $200m, starred Tom Cruise and featured a couple of explosive break-out sequences, it would have broken even in the first few weeks – guaranteed.

    For further proof of money's ability to make more money, look at the list of the most expensive movies of the past 20 years and see how infrequently they have failed to turn a profit, regardless of quality. Sam Raimi's baggily substandard Spider-Man 3, which even the fans agree was a calamitous mess (unlike the first two instalments) cost $258m and grossed $885m worldwide. X-Men: The Last Stand, which tested the patience of devotees of both the comic books and the movies, ran up a bill of $210m but still raked in $455m worldwide. James Cameron's Avatar (aka Smurfahontas, or Dances with Smurfs) cost $237m and (if we include the unnecessarily extended "Special Edition' re-release) has achieved global box-office takings just shy of $2.8bn.

    Even David Fincher's utterly up-itself The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, an upmarket indulgence in which Brad Pitt plays a man who lives his life backwards, managed to balance its $150m costs with worldwide box-office takings in the region of $329m, thanks in part to well-placed news stories about its ultra-expensive special effects. If you take the oft-repeated industry maxim that a film must gross twice its negative cost (the price of actually making the film before incurring print, publicity and distribution costs) in order to earn its keep, then all of these movies were bona fide hits. Working on the same ratio, Bryan Singer's dangerously star-free 2006 superhero flick Superman Returns, featuring Brandon "who he?' Routh, "underperformed' at the box office, with takings of $390m just failing to balance its official cost of $209m (as opposed to the $270m some reported) although ancillary revenues would certainly have pushed it into profit.

    Compare that with Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are, which I really liked (although crucially my kids didn't) but which only a fool would have financed to the tune of $100m, since it contained no stars (Catherine Keener is an indie queen, James Gandolfini a safe bet only on TV) and boasted deliberately unspectacular (but nonetheless costly) special effects.

    Like Heaven's Gate, Where the Wild Things Are was a movie whose budget was totally out of whack with the financial realities of what was on-screen, and it has been widely described as a chastening flop. Jonze's folly still took around $100m in theatres worldwide and has since recouped more on DVD and TV, meaning that the level of its "failure' is far from studio-sinkingly spectacular. Once upon a time, a film like Where the Wild Things Are would have ended Spike Jonze's career and sent industry bosses tumbling from high windows. Today, it is merely a curio from which everyone will walk away unscathed.

    This is the not-so-harsh reality of the movie business for top-end productions in the 21st century. For all the bleating and moaning and carping and whingeing that we constantly hear about studios struggling to make ends meet in the multimedia age, those with the means to splash money around will always come out on top. So the next time you pay good money to watch a really lousy summer blockbuster, remember this: the people who made that movie are wallowing in an endless ocean of cash, which isn't going to dry up any time soon. They are floating on the financial equivalent of the Dead Sea , an expanse of water so full of rotting bodies turned to salt that it is literally impossible for them to sink. They could make better movies if they wanted, and the opulent ripples of buoyant hard currency would still continue to lap at their fattening suntanned bodies. If they fail to entertain, engage and amaze you, then it is because they can't be bothered to do better. And if you accept that, then you are every bit as stupid as they think you are.

    This is no time to be nice to big-budget movies. This is the time for them to start paying their way, both financially and artistically.


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  2. H'mmm. Eh well. I have probably two or three dozen related articles I could post links to, I don't think in the end it would change anyone's mind. That's not my agenda anyway.

    That being said, here's just one that sums up a lot of points in readable fashion.


    p.s. I mentioned somewhere else on this site, how PC- obsessed moviegoers I've met love to turn their backs on the legacy of classic Hollywood simply because the classic era was not a perfect one for women or minorities, 'therefore nothing made in that era can be good because see, it just wasn't perfectly free from bias and misogyny the way WE live today'. Hogwash, of course, and no one espousing these views stands a hope-in-hell of convincing me that today's movie products are intrinsically any 'better' simply because they're whitewashed and sanitized. The whole 'diversity in media' thing is driven by money, and money only.

  3. 'Pennies from Heaven' (same source story) is also a very fine BBC mini-series starring Bob Hoskins. Written by the same superb talent who gave us 'The Singing Detective' (my #1 favorite mini-series of all time). The BBC 'Pennies' version has period-piece atmosphere and aesthetics (filmed with sepia-tone), true seaminess (realistic sex and violence, adult attitudes), location/outdoors shooting; and great big raft of 1930s songs.

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  4. The catastrophic flop of the Spider-Man musical, I thought for sure that was going to kill Broadway. The whole thing is a joke these days. I'm actually glad to see they're doing traditional stuff like 'Oklahoma!' and 'Kiss Me Kate'. But this propensity of Broadway to serve merely as an extension of Disney and Marvel blockbusters is an atrocity.

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  5. Not at all. Cavegirl, I'm surprised at you. For shame!

    As I implied earlier, listing reasons 'why new things usually suck' would probably be a limitless endeavor.

    Trying to find one lone 'aphorism' or 'epigram' which sums it all  up --that's the other approach. Is there some principle we can refer to, like the 'golden mean' or golden ratio', which succinctly and pithily describes the vast juncture between old and new? Take a glance at the 'law of diminishing returns on investment' (if anyone here is the science-minded sort, I know they always need something sciencey-sounding, but in this case its valid).

    I guess you could basically say that its a case of 'doers doing', and 'talkers talking'. That's my umbrella statement. Those who 'can' ...'do'. Those who can't ...'teach'. The 'thin end' of the wedge versus the 'thick end' of the wedge. There are no 'renaissance men' in modern times.

    H'mmm. How else to phrase what I mean, here? Well, let me ask you, does anyone abide a 'talker', rather than a 'doer'? Who is impressed by 'pretenders'? After a certain point, all Hollywood consists of, are these types. Copycats and followers. Thieves and borrowers. All 'fluff', no 'stuff'. Loafers, spongers, layabouts and ne'er-do-wells. Riding on coattails.

    No pioneers. No one today is accomplishing anything lasting. No one today is achieving anything significant, forging any genuine qualitative improvements.

    It's like someone once said about baseball: "it's dead, but they just haven't kicked the body into a grave yet".

    The movie-making industry at this stage of its lifespan, is depleted of direction and energy, it has succumbed to ennui, stagnation, heat-death; (the Entropy Effect). Its full of paper-tigers, puffed-up egos, and jesters wearing the Emperor's clothes. No-talents and hacks, always talking a lot of s**t, yeah ...but they ain't doing s**t. There's nothing for them to do. They get the computers do it all for 'em instead.

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  6. 'The Jerk' indeed, is riotously funny. I personally wouldn't think much of anyone today, who is either so prim, 'correct', or uptight --that they can't enjoy a simple-hearted, zany, raucous flick like that.

    I'd support their reaction if they said, 'oh, it just isn't funny'. That's perfectly valid and I'd fight for their right to that opinion. But if they're 'offended by it' (as the root-cause for disliking the film) then I have no sympathy at all.

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  7. Jack Benny really so good, in 'To Be Or Not To Be' --he is turned around by his captors to face the wall, and expects to be shot in the back. He flings up his arms and bleats out, "LONG LIVE POLAND!

    :lol: Thinking of himself to the very end.

    then later the wonderful scene when he's the imposter trying to avoid being unmasked. "So they call me 'Concentration-Camp Erhardt, eh...?"

  8. Peter Bogdonavich always seems to garner a lot of hatred from film fans but I've liked most of his flicks I've ever seen. His homage to screwball comedy works for me. "What's Up Doc?" was a scream, the first time I saw it --and still cracks plenty of smiles on repeat airings. The cast is on point. Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, and Austin Pendleton in supporting roles, hard to go wrong.

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  9. I've seen "Fireman's Ball". Good pick there for sure. Sturges as well: 'Palm Beach Story' indeed has laugh-out-loud moments.

    Now while I cant say these two Cary Grant titles are --either of them--the funniest movie I've ever seen, I do like them quite a bit. 'Operation Petticoat' is charming but even better is 'I Was a Male War-Bride' --definitely amusing. I found it so, anyway. I also like 'Monkey Business' as well as 'Old Lace' (mentioned earlier).

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  10. Re: 'Light at the Edge of the World', I don't even know how they got a woman into that story at all. Seems ludicrous that Eggar's character is even present. Its literally a lighthouse at the tip of Patagonia or somewhere. Eh.

    Anyway it rather reminds me of this flick I've long been waiting to see because it has one of my favorite limey actors in it (Ian Bannen). Love Ian Bannen. Five men..one woman...Station Six Sahara!


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  11. I've seen and enjoyed 'Light at the End of the World'. Its a handsome production with a gorgeous, stark island locale; and the two male leads are played with intensity, yep. It's a 'Die Hard' long before 'Die Hard' was even a glimmer in anyone's mind.

    Eggar is as usual, forgettable (to me anyway). What is more surprising is that the flick is almost stolen away from the two juggernauts by a third actor who is hardly/rarely ever mentioned in this (or even very many other films). In fact right at this moment, I am hard pressed to come up with his name. Italian actor. In this story, he is the assistant lighthouse keeper who cooperates with the pirates when master lighthouse keeper Kirk decides to fight the invaders. Something like that. Anyway the assistant is meek and soft-spoken and gentle, and thats why he draws so much of one's attention when these other two rake-hells are duking it out.

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  12. The production notes for Halloween, is where I drew my comment from. Haven't read the IMDb page for a while but I distinctly recall the 'race' aspect between the two projects.

    If I'm mis-remembering, okay. But there are many other instances of what I'm describing in Hollywood history; my point is that genre movies are very often similar.

  13. Sure, I'm not denying the uniqueness of the writer's voice. I do think it matters a lot more in the fiction writer's market, in short-stories and novels, etc.

    In movies I think unscrupulous producers today simply sidestep these considerations. Remember the race to get to the screen first between John Carpenter's 'Halloween' and Sean Cunningham's 'Friday the 13th'? Once you get to the public first you as good as own their perception. The differences between these two horror yarns is not that great, is it? But one of them became a classic and one of them wound up merely an 'also-ran'.

    Another example is 'Poltergeist'. The narrative elements of that story are not hard to deliver; any competent writer could have hacked out a version. But the version which got to the public 'cornered the market'. It's now known as the 'indian graveyard' trope and no one even today can get anywhere near it.

    'Over-saturated markets' in genre storytelling is one of the steepest obstacles in today's writing. And its no wonder. Any aspiring storyteller today --anyone who wants to be considered original-- has decades of media to attempt to 'stand out from'.

    Jlewis's comment about 'Repeat Performance' (in your 'Essentials' thread) bears that out. 'Repeat Performance' has a lot of finesse in the plot but...the basic storyline is also found in numerous radio shows, tv shows, everywhere.

    Said another way: genre stories suffer from their formulaic nature; and unfortunately genre stories dominate today's media. The kind of writing you're talking about really shines in previous decades when studios made unique, personal, mature movies. The loss of these types of films, is what I am bemoaning in my posts above this one and in other threads around the site itself....

  14. TB sez:


    Joan Leslie is an actress, and she is playing Sheila Page an actress who plays an actress in a new stage play. It goes beyond actress playing actress; she's an actress playing actress playing actress.

    This kind of meta-theater is found in one of my favorite movies, Peter O'Toole and Steve Railsback in 'The Stunt Man' (the source novel was that from which two other films on the same concept also emerged --Truffaut's 'Day for Night' and I forget the other one).

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  15. I'm familiar with that POV, yes. But I think idea theft is rampant these days nonetheless (its said to be one of the primary reasons that Readers exist in the first place, so that execs can claim they 'weren't directly exposed to an idea' and that they 'happened to come up with it on their own').

    [But I still don't know why this defense works, when it didn't work for George Harrison; the reality probably is that if you're a nobody you just can't muster up the resources for a giant legal battle against a big studio].

    Anyway back to this notion of the writing being 'unique as per the writer': the reason I think it doesn't float very far is that many movie scripts today don't particularly need the good, gifted, 'extremely personalized' writing style you're extolling. Movie plots are simplistic; movie dialog can be quite banal (and yet still effective). So the writing is not the key factor. A dozen staff writers can take any idea and quickly get it into shape for marketability. But the fresh idea in the first place is what counts; and that's why ideas continue to be stolen. Whichever version of the story gets to the screen first, wins.

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  16. I guess what is depressing about these trends is realizing that today's producers behave like little more than mako sharks; they are in the business not only of making money but of promoting themselves as winners and providers. They keep their corner offices only by producing hits; they are not above stealing, lying, cheating to keep their status. I just don't believe this is always how it was; the classic studio system (and even studios in the 70s) was not such a crazed 'feeding frenzy'; producers could develop a variety of projects (high end and low-end) at their leisure, without constantly fearing their throats being cut. Now, it's as if every movie has to be a sure-fire blockbuster to get greenlit.

    I'd enjoy seeing more threads on classic producers on this forum sometime.

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