Hollywood plays it safe

Short of the week has put together an interesting ‘info-graphic’ that clearly illustrates a trend we’ve all been aware of for years – sequels,
prequels and adaptations are ruling the box office. With every passing year, it is becoming increasingly difficult to see a big-budget film based on an original idea.

The article doesn’t pretend to critique such films – it makes no effort to discuss whether the latest Transformers film is more worthy of our attention than say, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Independence Day – it simply puts forward the evidence that our blockbuster hopefuls are increasingly less original.

Click here to take a look at the info-graphic and to read the original article.

A worrying trend

Regardless of where you think the blame may lie, I think we can all agree that it is a shame that less original material sees the light of day. Even if we love the Harry Potter series (I do) and are salivating at the thought of returning to Pandora in Avatar 2 (hmmmm…..maybe a little bit), its hard to ignore the threat – creatively speaking – that this trend poses.

Of course, blockbusters represent but a fraction of what I love about cinema, yet I gain a great deal of pleasure from seeing a big-scale, flashy summer release. All too often that pleasure is tempered by the nagging thought that what I am watching has little in the way of soul and, all too often, a mere wisp of a plot hidden behind the CGI and explosions.

I do think that these short-comings are directly linked to the fading originality of summer releases. Seriously, how can they expect us to become emotionally invested in the movie adaptation of the board game Battleships? And surely it must be  increasingly difficult for film-makers to be emotionally invested when they hold so little sway over the subject matter of the films they are creating.

Its all about the money

Of course the driving force behind these changes is money. A film that has a pre-existing audience – that are guaranteed to go and see the film – is a safer investment than a film based upon a strange and new idea. Also it seems that we increasingly expect our blockbusters to be HUGE. Budgets have ballooned to the point where a tent-pole picture is rarely produced for less than $150 million and regularly for $200 million or more.

Do you remember the outrage when $175 million was spent on Waterworld? Well, that is a fairly standard budget now for a big release. When Sam Raimi’s Spiderman was released in 2002, it cost $139 million. Now in 2012, when Marc Webb came to make The Amazing Spiderman, he somehow dropped $230 million, and no one batted an eye.

With these huge budgets becoming the norm, is it any wonder that film companies are less likely to make riskier investments? I’m not sure that a film requires such a hefty budget in order to provide the spectacle that modern audiences want. Whilst I am glad that the new Star Trek film will be as visually impressive as it will no doubt be, I wish there was some way to go back to a time when films did not cost such a huge amount to make.

Ultimately, the movie-going public like their summer blockbusters to always be bigger, louder and more special-effects driven every year. What we need is for Hollywood to to show a little more strength of character and produce some films that will not only generate a nice return for their investors, but also stand the test of time as well as entertain us for a couple of hours.

Budget information taken from the IMDB.


Film documentaries

I don’t just love watching films, I have for a long time been very interested in all aspects of the subject, from how films are made to how they influence the people who watch them.

From the first audio commentary I heard (The Usual Suspects, when released on VHS, was available to purchase with a second video where the film was narrated by the director and stars) through to the rise of DVD, when I used to hope that my most anticipated releases would come with a bumper load of extras and documentaries, I have consumed information about my favourite films.

Recently I’ve been seeking out documentary films that could expand my knowledge of the movie industry, perhaps shedding light on the quirkier aspects of the industry or even informing me about aspects of film history that should have already been familiar to me.

What follows is an overview of some of the more interesting documentary films I have come across recently on this subject.

Corman’s World (2011)

Although the name of Roger Corman was already familiar to me, I didn’t really fully understand how influential this man has been and how he shaped (and perhaps foreshadowed) the trends of popular cinema, whilst somehow surviving almost entirely outside the Hollywood machine.

Corman’s World takes us on a journey through Corman’s back catalogue. Though it would be impossible to make a comprehensive study of all his films (he has produced more than 300), the documentary touches upon numerous career milestones, some of which I hadn’t even heard of.

Corman had a tumultuous career, constantly striving to maintain his independence and producing all manner of movies. Known to many as the king of B-movies and exploitation cinema, Corman is a softly-spoken and private guy, who’s true motivations (beyond the simple fact that he enjoys to make movies) are difficult to pin down.

Yet what this documentary effectively illustrates is that he was making movies for film geeks and modern (perhaps younger) audiences long before Jaws and Star Wars came on the scene. It is also clear that he was a great moulder of men. Without him it is likely we would not have seen films from directors such as Jonathan Demme, Curtis Hanson, Martin Scorcesse and Ron Howard.

His story weaves through the history of cinema from the 1950s forward, yet Corman’s World also shows us how he tried to touch upon real-life issues. Corman worked with budgets small enough to allow him to tackle subjects that were contemporary when studio films were unable to take such risks.

He made films for teenagers before anyone knew what a teenager was. He introduced subjects such as drug consumption, biker gangs and racism when such topics were not even an option for filmmakers working within the studio system.

Overnight (2003)

The sad story of Troy Duffy, a Los Angeles bartender whose personal belief and incredible drive led him to write, produce and direct The Boondock Saints. Ultimately a victim of his own huge ego, Duffy is deserted by Harvey Weinstein (who discovered Duffy and pushed him into the limelight), forcing him to try and make his film on his own.

Whilst The Boondock Saints ultimately became a cult favourite, Duffy never managed to work in Hollywood again. A fascinating look into the unpredictable world of movie production and the risks of believing the flattering things people tell you.

Best Worst Movie (2009)

Best Worst Movie charts the fall and rise of Troll 2, the film considered to be the worst ever made (at least according to The Internet Movie Database) and which holds a special place in the hearts of a few dedicated fans.

Directed by Michael Stephenson, who starred in Troll 2 as a child, this documentary is a study of the odd nature of movie-fandom, as well as an interesting look at how the stars of box office failures live their lives. In particular, George Hardy, who went on to operate a successful dental practice, proves himself to be a hugely likable and charismatic individual.

George and Michael bring the cast back together and are present as Troll 2 experiences an unexpected turnaround in its popularity. Best Worst Movie is, at its heart, a study of how a truly shitty movie still manages to effect people’s lives. Its a surprisingly feel-good film.

Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography

This documentary is a great introduction to the world of cinematography. Always playing second fiddle to the director, the cinematographer and his role on the movie set is perhaps not well understood. Yet their impact on individual films and the art form as a whole cannot be understated.

Visions of Light seeks expand out knowledge of this field and to shed light on the achievements of various cinematographers and how their creativity is affected by the technology available to them, and how their art has affected the legacy of cinema.

The film provides a potted history of cinematography’s impact on movies, touching upon classics with an important visual style, such as On the Waterfront (1954), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), The Graduate (1967) and Raging Bull (1980).

What are your favourite film / cinema-related documentaries? Please comment below with any recommendations.

Just watched: The Grey

The Grey is a relentlessly brooding film which provides the protagonists (and us) with little release from the terrifying situation that they find themselves faced with. This is a film that clearly demonstrates that a horror film can be all the more effective for being rooted in reality, rather than a world where, say, a terrifying man hunts you in your dreams.

The film charts the struggle for survival that occurs when an airplane carrying oil workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. Those who survive the crash find themselves fighting for their lives against an indifferent  force of nature – wolves.

The man vs. wild elements here really worked for me. The wolves are an  unpredictable foe that can be fought, but not defeated. The director, whose work up until now has been no indication that he had such a well-balanced film in him, wisely chose to leave much hidden. The wolves are only clearly visible on a few occasions, the rest of the time being masked by shadow or camera angle.

The motivations of the wolves are unknowable (beyond the basic exposition given my Liam Neeson’s Ottway) and its their relentless, yet chillingly organised, process of attrition that provides the focus of the fear they create.

Above all else, The Grey is just a compelling and exciting film. The relentless pace ensures that the film never drifts into depression yet it doesn’t get in the way of some effective, economical character-development. From the moment the plane crashes, it feels as though the characters are constantly hunted in a realistic, yet entertaining, way.