Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Editorial: Are romantic comedies ruining local cinema?

First written 6th September 2009

Me and the Romantic Comedy genre, or “Rom-Com” have always had a straightforward relationship. To put it bluntly it’s the only genre I’m not too keen on... scratch that, out right hate. But my recent issue with this flamboyant sub-genre has not manifested itself from it’s predictable plot-lines, bland characterization and half-baked attempts at both romance and comedy, no. I respect other people’s opinions and these films cater to the young women of this world and their clearly reluctant boyfriends, however in recent times my patience has to be running thin. These films not only appear to be churned out as if the genre was on a money powered iron lung, but has even begun to shaft films that are in many instances more critically AND commercially successful. This could be the case with any genre of film but in a landmark case of “Sod’s Law”, it’s the Rom-Com on trial.

Those of you who are fortunate to live in the big cities might usually be treated to a variety of local cinemas with up to three in any district alone not counting independent film groups. Those on the other hand who are unfortunate to live in the quiet town cliche have had to settle with just the one, thus only what it shows. Despite the film industry like any other creative media being full of artistic talents prepared to create something worthwhile, at the end of the day it is still an industry, run by studio executives and high roller producers whose goal is make money and these times of bloated action flicks and half-baked comedies what’s the best route to take? Something unconventional like Natural Born Killers made $60 million, something complex like The Shawshank Redemption made $30 million, heck even something with Johnny Depp like Ed Wood made just $6 million (and you know what fangirls are like)... a Romantic Comedy on the other hand, Four Weddings and a Funeral made $250 million! All these films were released in the same year and this is just one example. Great, looks like I’m stuck with the latter in this months local release schedule.

While Four Weddings and a Funeral was a hit with apparent originality for it’s time, all those involved must now carry the stigma of trend that followed. Without pointing the finger at any particular chain of cinemas (you know who you are), the Romantic Comedy genre is a chronically fattened up cash cow that seems to be milked on a regular basis with up to three of this genre currently in the UK top ten alone at the time of this article, withdrawing those that settle with just the romantic half (that would raise it to four films). A cliche ridden summer blockbuster like Transformers 2 or GI Joe might appear to be the worst offenders when it comes to cash consuming trash since they’re big, loud and have unusually attractive women as the innocent bystanders. While these films’ marketing campaigns are on par with a Mongol conquest, the sheer volume of Rom-Coms is somewhat more surprising than previously thought if not actually scary. Using US box office referencing, If you were to collect every American film since 1980, categorize each into a genre then further sub categorizing each again, the average number of films for each kind of film is between 30 and 80... for Romantic Comedies there are over 300. And if you bother including films that run in the same format such as teen comedies and youth-orientated musicals, it would go beyond the thresh hold making it the largest scripted genre. With that prospect in your head you’d happily line up days before the release of Transformers 3: Rise of the CGI. At least then they’d be variety.

From personal experience, in 2008 alone, there were two films I was prepared to dish out my last few coppers for the unreasonably high entrance fee, yet in an ironic twist none of which were released at my local cinema. The first film to fall foul was the Oscar winning No Country for Old Men, instead I got “P.S. I Love You”, that all I got from was an overly warm pin up flaunting a cringeworthy pair of young lovers embracing. The second was Cloverfield, a film upon reflection was severely hyped, particularly on the net. Nope, instead I got “Over Her Dead Body” starring some... thing from Desperate Housewives (on a side note No Country was eventually shown at an independent venue and for the first time sold out the hall). But here’s the thing, unlike the impressive revenue of Four Weddings and a Funeral, these other examples of the genre didn’t crush their own studio under it’s vast gross profit, so why were they inflicted upon a small town that already had it’s fill with the likes of them in previous years and is now starving for something original and mind blowing?

Perhaps I’m looking to much into it and there’s only so long a subject can milked for the big screen with this genre being something of a recent incarnation. But here’s the thrust of my concerns, they’ve only tapped a small percentage of possible romantic comedy scenarios. With the recent trend of remakes and sequels, it’s not far-fetched to see this pattern merging with the already bloated genre. And here’s the scary part, they haven’t even begun utilizing queer culture, Bollywood, science fiction and horror hybrids and historical backdrops. For this film goer, queer culture has the potential to become the worst offender. Films like Brokeback Mountain and Milk took a sensitive approach to the subject matter yet it’s camp, or “metrosexual” thats all the rage and with the success of the Sex in the City movie, it’s just a matter of time before the Will and Grace or Queer Eye factor begins showing it’s well-styled face on the cinema scene.

But I digress... Whether or not you’re a fan of Romantic Comedies, no one could possibility stomach the vast quantities of this genre. Even if in a blissful state of mind you are some how an avid Rom-Com fan, you’d be broke if you wanted to see everything plastered on the cinema walls, plain and simple. Since this article is in such negative spirits, the question I can only ask is who’s to blame? Can it be the public despite some box office figures still indicating the craving for other genres? Maybe the cinemas themselves despite thinking they’d learn their lesson from showing films that didn’t break records? Technically there is no right or wrong culprit here, in fact it’s most likely a mixture of both parties... but for this film goer it’s neither. Instead it’s our good old friend *cue dramatic music* the Advertisers... and why isn’t even difficult to think about. While not trying to show bias against a genre I’ve denounced from the beginning, many of them don’t have the originality to survive on their own merits, so instead they’re branded on every TV break, poster space and website. I dare you to look into any three of these and not tell me you’re found at least a couple of these films or even teen comedies or feel-good films that are typically the same thing. If you took someone unfamiliar with the film industry and marched them down the street to the local cinema, they might just think it was the only genre.

Yes, I know many blame big budget action films for the dumbing down of cinema, but in an unfair comparison: Harold Shipman killed more people than Jack the Ripper, but who is more famous?

Statistics from Box Office Mojo.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Top NINE Films of 2009

Why top nine films when everyone else does ten? Because like everyone else, it’s always a struggle to pick out the best ten of anything and thus becomes stuck over whether to choose A over B out five others... so I’ve eliminated that problem altogether and just cut the tenth number and all those other potential films in the process.

Another thing I should point out is there are many films classed as 2009 but have or will be released in the UK in 2010 that are usually the award winning line up. Despite that however, for this year I have also not included those films released in 2008 but 2009 in the UK that are also award winners, quite simply to start off fresh. If I did however, the number one would be The Wrestler.

Next year the early 2010 award winners, if any worthy, will be mentioned in a 2010 top nine.

Further more, there are no doubt some 2009 foreign films I have yet to see or even hear of that would probably destroy all the other competition. So without further delay...

9. Paranormal Activity

(Directed by Oren Peil)

Despite the shakey-cam technique being the usual clutter of distortion and camera movement too fast for a handheld, by simply using a tripod and one shot, Paranormal Activity instantly becomes more coherent, realistic and ultimately scary as a result.

8. Zombieland

(Directed by Ruben Fleischer)

While not an entirely original concept, this comedic adventure of a zombie apocalypse delivers a perfect balance between grotesque slaughter and crude dialogue with all the characters fitting a role suited for a zombie survivor... not to mention an excellent Bill Murray cameo as himself.

7. Drag Me To Hell

(Directed by Sam Raimi)

Sam Raimi returns to form with an over the top story of gypsy curses and keen demons thats creepy and funny at the same time. A great comeback after the cliche ridden Spiderman spectacles to return to a better suited cliche ridden horror but this time it’s on purpose.

6. Moon

(Directed by Duncan Jones)

An unusual sci-fi drama about the story of a lone astronaut and his future-set mission to the moon under the watchful eye of an industrial powerhouse, although such a description hardly does this unique film justice. Quite simply it is a film with philosophy and psychology; hard science fiction.

5. The Fantastic Mr. Fox

(Directed by Wes Anderson)

Probably the most tame of the list, using old fashion stop-motion animation (original once more by today’s standards) and a quirky sense of humor, this tale of sly woodland critters over the top feud with upper class farmers is both amusing to and pleasant to watch... if not at times slightly weird.

4. Inglorious Bastards

(Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino merges a Pulp Fiction story with Third Reich spin following the seedy plots of a rag tag band of Allied butchers and slick yet sinister Nazi leaders. The plot rarely takes itself seriously and is clear on staying as far from historical accuracy as possible, which makes it all the more fun to watch.

3. District 9

(Directed by Neill Blomkamp)

The excellent and engaging premise of extraterrestrial refugees slots together perfectly with the deranged plot of a human peace keeper’s transformation into the said alien insectoids. At first the audience is ushered in with a semi-documentary style story structure before becoming a more personal tale of the alien-human hybrid’s struggle with the military giant he once worked for. While one of the most violent films of 2009, there’s plenty of context to set itself apart from violence for the sack of violence flicks.

2. Watchmen

(Directed by Zack Synder)

300 director Zack Snyder takes on the hefty mantel of the classic graphic novel Watchmen, the downright bleak works of Alan Moore. Unlike most superhero adaptations that follow the traditional plot structure of “man becomes hero, struggles against villain”, Watchmen is about the washed up lives of ex-costumed crusaders who as normal people are hardly the ideal humans that are usually painted. Given it’s dark and downright depressing take on the genre, it captures the gritty realism of its alternate 1980s backdrop while inserting a good dose of social and political commentary. Mark my words, this will be remembered more than any blockbuster in the years to come.

1. The Hurt Locker

(Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)

Kathryn Bigelow’s take on America’s current war in Middle-East, despite some questionable advertising is hardly your conventional affair of Hollywood celebrities running and gunning through explosions set off by cliche arab militants or corrupt oil company henchmen. No, this is the real deal, war as it is. The plot quite simply follows a long years work of a three man Bomb Ordnance Disposal team and their increasingly hostile tasks at hand. There is no tale of revenge or redemption, and the small portion that nearly steps into such territory only lasts 10 minutes before getting back in line. And with the actors as normal humans, they all convey their own forms of fear, anger, humor and at times scary enjoyment that comes in the line of duty. Further more the message is not black nor white since while many will interpret the context as anti-war, the reason being is that it just shows war and war is hell but then again even the pro-war know this. The fact that America itself has made a well made war film that neither relishes in the glory or bloodshed of modern warfare is worthy of praise.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Film Review: Avatar

(Directed by James Cameron, running time 162 minutes)

Its been 10 years since James Cameron achieved the greatest heights of the film industry with Titanic, winning 11 Oscars and becoming the highest grossing film of all time. Not only is this the success many film makers hope to achieve but it was with arguably one of his weakest films. Those of us who knew Cameron before Titanic know him for such action Sci-Fi classics such as Terminator and Aliens and after so long, the prospect of Cameron returning to his once beloved genre must be something of a God send to anticipate with a passion, and boy do we all know how hyped this film has been, but is such blind praise justified? In clear cut terms: sort of...

It’s 2154, the RDA corporation has begun mining the resources of a organic rich planet known as Pandora, home to a vast array of exotic alien creates and a race of tribal humanoids known as the Na’vi. Sam Worthington of Terminator Salvation fame plays Jake Sully, a wheel chair bound marine who is given the opportunity to participate in the Avatar program, an operation that sees humans take full body control a manufactured Na’vi host in order integrate, communicate and eventually make deals with the local alien populace. It is when in his Avatar form, Jake quickly becomes one of the tribe, even to the point of falling in love with the Na’vi female Neytiri, played by an unrecognizable Zoe Saldana. After seeing RDA for the unethical military giant it is, Jake quickly begins to oppose the power hungry machine that once employed him.

Sounds like your standard affair of the protagonist switching sides and joining the underdogs after the big bad super power step on one too many toes... and it is. With the exception of the remarkable landscape, the story is as distant from originality as your eyeballs will be from the front of your skull if you watch this in the front row. As a result, the story becomes an ever increasing case of predicable plot twists, revelations and other developments. For example after the first sight of Colonol Quaritch (Stephen Lang), it becomes obvious to the viewer that he is the antagonist even if his first impression is somewhat warming. Because of black and white nature of the plot, certain elements outside of the special effects are downright confusing if Cameron is out the make Avatar as believable as it is alien. In one instance, head of the RDA-hired scientists, played by the always fantastic Sigourney Weaver, attempts to explain the science behind why it would be a bad idea to dump yet another mineshaft on sacred Na’vi land but is instead shrugged off by corporate big wigs. In the future, science has, built up the military, taken them beyond the stars and made first contact... so forgive me for thinking we’d take the advice of scientists with more than a grain of salt. Another follows where I then fail to believe that only one token female in the entire armed forces would find an issue with incinerating an entire village for the purpose of profit. It’s with moments like these where the cracks in the narrative begin to hinder the fine water-colour painting that is Avatar.

But I digress, the plot and characterization is by no means bad at all. The story is well structured and moves at a good pace and all actors are capable at worst with many stand out if not memorable roles. Its just when the director calls his film a “character driven piece”, only to then rely on expensive special effects, don’t complain if I was disappointed in the narrative department. And yes I could take about the parallels between the Na’vi and the Native Americans or the ecological subtext but it’s so inherently obvious I would be wasting mine and your time. Its definitely character driven at times, albeit with 2D characters (I mean really, does the antagonist need to have a head of scars?).

But you didn’t come for the characters did you? No, just like with Titanic you came with the promise of spectacle and trust me when I say there’s a lot of it, and it definitely pays off. The world of Pandora is a marvel in it’s own right. Forests of lush illumines foliage, an array of different giant alien beasts that roam the lands in vast numbers, whole mountain ranges floating amongst the clouds, trees that can simply dwarf any man-made structure, the list goes on. Where most special effects these days are nothing more than a new coat of paint for their mandatory explosion sequence, Avatar seeks to immerse you in it’s strange yet exciting world. The Na’vi themselves aren’t bad looking either, being as believable as any other real human on screen. But it is this believability that pays of the most. Where Cameron has succeed in making the Na’vi a believable and sympathetic race, the film quickly transforms into a somewhat docu-drama feature where Jake relishes in the practice of their humble yet fascinating culture, going into great detail about the Na’vi hunting, religious and social practices, with the most striking point being that it’s not boring nor unnecessary. The more you learn about the Na’vi, it will become easier for audiences to sneer at their own race as it is depicted. That alone is a praise worthy triumph.

Despite all it’s issues (again, scars?), I can safely put people’s biggest fears to rest; Avatar is not all style over substance. Sure, the substance could be thicker and while the plot is somewhat formulaic with much of the film’s focus on the lavish CGI, its a definite bar above most blockbuster outings with its uniquely crafted world of Pandora being a place you will probably want to revisit. And as someone who only went to see the 2D incarnation, the bar should be quickly raised another peg in 3D in what will be no doubt a memorable and awe-inspiring experience for many movie goers...

...now if only the closing credits soundtrack wasn’t so cringe worthy.

Also stars Joel Moore, Giowanni Ribisi, Michelle Rodriguez and Wes Studi.