Big Boys With All The Toys

I was speaking with a friend of mine who is in the film and television industry. He is lucky and personable enough to always be in demand for his directing talents. The last few years have been busy for him, with a long cherished project coming to completion and various television jobs. He also directed a comedic feature, whilst hawking around another biopic project. This is a man who keeps busy.
With the various platforms and streaming services available all needing content, a man such as he is, can, without too much of a herculean effort, keep themselves in demand, as he has done. As grateful and happy as he is to be a working director, the film industry still remains a source of frustration.
In years gone by, tentpole, summer movies would, as they do now, be the big hitters in the season, the viewing masses flocking to see them. Typically, they would dominate the early July weeks and everybody in the industry, the smaller players, respected that. Over the past few years, since the House of Mouse bought, well, everything, there has been a very different approach to marketing.
Disney’s omnipresence in the film business cannot be overstated. The company dominates the film world. Owning not only the Marvel Studios brand, but the Star Wars franchise and overseeing their sub-division of Pixar, Disney produce the most popular films on the planet through their various subsidiaries. It is not just that they own so many popular products, they also have the clout and experience to be able to saturate media with their output.
Films are trailed a full year in advance of release. They have standing room only Expos at the film and comic conventions, meanwhile their stars do social media, television shows and internet shows, keeping the money making machine going.
I wrote about seeing the quirky and highly enjoyable Colossal a few months back. It starred the Hollywood A lister, Anne Hathaway, famed for The Devil Wears Prada, Les Miserables and The Dark Knight Rises. Even with the kudos of Hathaway, the film took less than quarter of a million dollars in its opening weekend.
The democratisation of filmmaking has made it so that anybody can make a film, with the internet making it possible for one to get that film out into the world. Unfortunately, everybody can now get their film into the world. The sheer volume of media available to watch on every type of device and being widely accessible, means people have to be more discerning as it is not possible to watch everything. Because of the overwhelming amount of content and the fact that even for the most avid film geek, there are far too many films released annually to keep up with all of the good or even great films, the big boys have taken advantage.
Disney’s massive roster of talent takes the guesswork out of finding a good film. As I mentioned earlier, even an A list star does not guarantee any traction when it comes to box office attention. Remember, even a lot of the big stars are actors first and stars second, they still, for the most part, want to act. As much as they want to act, they also want to be in successful works, so the bravery needed to appear in quirky, independent films, evaporates for many an actor wanting to forge a career.
Though there have been a few sleeper hits, they are few and far between, with so many of the biggest studio films, outside of the Disney/Marvel/Star Wars fare, being sequels. The other thing that the internet has done, that has proved detrimental to the smaller films, is to make film watchers more savvy to the process and the goings on behind the scenes in Hollywood. Knowing the actual character of an actor or director of a film, especially if the perception is negative, can be harmful to a movies possible box office.
It is up to the smaller independent films to bring variety amongst the juggernauts juggling their tent pole offerings every year. After all, as much as we love the big films, it is the small films that inspire.

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Hating On Reality

As an aspiring film and television writer, reality television is an abomination to me. Lazy television, accommodating talentless, fame hungry people and selling it as entertainment. Here in the United Kingdom the latest reality show – it might be in its second or third season, I’ve really no idea and refuse to research it. – is Love Island, a show where a collection of beautiful, single, young people are thrown together on an island and given various task to complete.
The show has garnered a lot of press for a lot of the antics, mostly of an overtly sexual nature, that have transpired. I do not consider myself a prude and an adult is entitled to do as they please, as long as their actions harm no other, but Love Island, a show that is deliberately salacious and is so abhorrent I cannot bring myself to watch even an episode, I have been watching snippets on YouTube and it is as awful as I feared.
Musclebound jocks and dolly birds with too much face paint show off and cavort on a specially created island. At the end of each episode, the watching public gets to vote off one of the participants. The group learn of this by one of them receiving a text and reading it out loud to the rest. The programme is just painful.
Suffering three minutes of this tripe is almost too much for me, with one of the least popular bawling their eyes out, because the other least popular character decided to leave. Utter shite. There are inane conversations and way too much makeup on just about everybody. Looking beautiful – depending on one’s perspective – seems to be the only requirement for getting into the shop window that this show is.
With the modern penchant for social media being seen as viable a career option, with popularity allowing celebrities to earn substantial amounts of money, there is a never ending supply of nubile, attractive women and hunky, gym-loving, vainglorious men prepared to embarrass and exhibit themselves for a voyeuristic and haughty public.
That reality television is so popular, especially in its present, obviously scripted, format is a mystery to me. There was a time when it was the contrast in the characters involved that was what made this type of show interesting and watchable. Now everyone in these shows looks the same. All of the participants fall into the eighteen to twenty-four demographic, all are slim and conventionally attractive or buffed up and pseudo-cool.
The public, however, laps up the show, happy to adopt it as a sort of guilty pleasure that makes them feel better about themselves, not being silly enough to allow themselves to be filmed for cheap entertainment. The feeling of superiority is reinforced by the type of people they tend to choose, who even for all their good looks and fine tans are obviously from working class backgrounds.
That this show is so popular says as much about the viewership as it does the participants, the class system and perceptions of the watchers that they are somehow better than those they are watching because, like spectators at an old Roman arena, they are being entertained. Of course, I see the irony in my rant, how by deriding Love Island, I too am viewing myself as above such fair. As I began, I have never been a fan of reality television. I want to be told stories. If I want to observe real life I can go sit on a bench in my local park. If I want to hear about other people’s mundane love life’s, I can get on a bus and hear any number of less than guarded conversations, people on mobile phones never aware of the fact they are out in public.
Unfortunately, reality television shows are not only initially cheap to make – the cost goes up once any of the participants gets really popular – but they also appeal to the ever important eighteen to twenty-four demographic, the mass consumers of media. As lazy and uninspiring as reality television is, it is not going away.

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Watching Heroes

I went to see Spider-Man  Homecoming yesterday, the sixth outing of the popular comic character since its big screen debut in 2002. It is also the third rebooting of the character, marking three incarnations in fifteen years. When a failing Marvel comics sold the rights to some of their characters, before Marvel Studios became established as the connected cinematic juggernaut it is today. Bryan Singer’s X-men, released in 2000, kicked off the boon for comic book movies. The rights to the X-men were and remain owned by Twentieth Century Fox.
Sony Pictures, who had acquired the rights to the Spiderman, followed suit in 2002 with the release of Spider-Man, starring man-cum-boy, Tobey Maguire. A massive hit for Sony, two sequels were released before Marvel joined the film party with the movie that rejuvenated not only Marvel but also the career of Robert Downey Jr with the release of 2008’s Iron Man.
With Iron Man doing gross receipts of over half a billion dollars, Marvel knew they had struck gold. Superheroes were popular, unfortunately for Marvel, one of their best-known characters was still owned by Sony. Sony, no mugs themselves when it comes to films, rebooted the property, this time with Andrew Garfield taking the lead. Though hated by comic geeks and some film fans for being a lazy reboot, the film grossed three-quarters of a billion dollars.
As the Marvel juggernaut gathered pace, they had the foresight to connect all of their stories, with even some television crossover. As all comic characters, both DC and Marvel, have extensive histories and a rabid knowledgeable fanbase, faithful adaption of the characters is quite important. Along with fully rounded characters, there are the well-known story arcs and the many nemeses that are synonymous with each hero.
Anybody who knows anything about films knows that there was always going to be some artistic licence. Bryan Singer not only ignored the costumes of the comics – rightly – he also decided to change the ages and appearances and belatedly the characters of some of the protagonist/antagonist. Wrong.
Still, it would be an extravagant waste of time to recreate a moving version of a comic book story. The ego that is Zack Snyder did that with Watchmen, a near three-hour recreation of the comic. It looked good as his films generally do, but once one had read the comic was pretty pointless.
Marvel decided they wanted an overall story arc, one that would connect all of their films. They decided to go with Civil War. Now whereas Watchmen suffered from comparison with the comic because Civil War was across several titles it does not have the same problem, especially as Marvel have not recreated those stories, they have just taken the overall premise of the Civil War story and used it as the anchor for their films.
Back to Spider-Man. Spider-Man is an integral character in the Civil War story. Though in the comics he is older – in the new film he is a school boy – Marvel obviously felt it was necessary to try and bring the popular web-slinging hero into the fold.
So after Sony’s fifth effort, we have a sixth and third reboot with Tom Holland taking on the mantle of bringing Peter Parker and his alter-ego to life for the big screen. It has to be said the seamless way in which Marvel has integrated Spider-Man into their cinematic universe is a testament to their vision and forward thinking. Spider-Man Homecoming is every bit as slick as you would expect. You can check out a review here.
What I will say is it is noticeable, visually speaking, that this incarnation of Spider-Man is a Marvel one. The colour palette is definitely all MCU, with the best villain thus far of all the Marvel films, suffering from the muddy blacks that are the trademark of Marvel films. Apparently, Spider-Man is going to be the character that takes us, the audience, into phase four of the Marvel master plan. As it was with Iron Man, utilising the heads up display in Tony Stark’s futuristic combat suit, Marvel has anticipated how to fill the void left by the inevitable departure of Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man and given Spider-Man a hi-tech, talking suit, courtesy of Tony Stark.
The superhero genre has been strong for almost two decades now and shows no sign of slowing down. It will be interesting to see where the Marvel Cinematic Universe goes after the completion of phase four. Spider-Man Homecoming is a great start.

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Watching The Wars

When I used to collect records, the vinyl kind, back in the eighties there was one artist whose music touched my heart to such an extent, that I would buy anything they produced. Anita Baker hit a musical and critical peak in the eighties, the release of her album Rapture, pushing her into the national consciousness. I bought her next album without even hearing a track, so enamoured with her sound I was at the time. Music was still mostly an aural experience then, not the social media driven industry it is now. Visual is king now.
I have written before about how I will and do watch anything that Joss Whedon is involved with. The creator of the glorious Buffy The Vampire Slayer television show and the criminally short-lived Firefly, I have rarely been disappointed with any of his output. Aaron Sorkin is another whose writing will get me to seek out a show, though not with the same acolyte like favour with which I approach a Whedon works.
After the dynamic Whiplash, I was eager to see Damien Chazelle’s follow up and La La Land did not disappoint so I look forward to his future works. Like most, I will either look for a subject matter of interest, recommendations from friends or, as a bit of a film fan, work by people who have impressed me before. It does not always work out well. I am quite the fan of David Fincher, director of Seven and most recently the excellent Gone Girl, but I could not get through Zodiac, especially as – spoiler alert – I realised there could be no resolution as, based on a true story, the serial killer had never been caught. An hour in I switched it off.
I also, like so many, love a Martin Scorsese film, but I have also been underwhelmed by some of his biggest hits and the slower paced, earnest efforts. There is a director working currently whose name on a film project guarantees my attention and that is Christopher Nolan. In tandem with his brother, Johnathan – who along with his wife, Lisa, created the unmissable Westworld television series – Christopher Nolan has brought not only some of the most watchable films to the big screen but also some of the most intelligent. Famed for the Dark Knight trilogy, he also made my favourite film of 2010 in the mind scrabbling Inception, the great, if mildly indulgent Interstellar and the staggeringly gripping The Prestige.
Nolan’s latest film, due for release in mid-July, is a film covering a dark period in British history. Set to be an epic retelling of the battle, Dunkirk will once again feature a stalwart of Nolan’s in Cillian Murphy, he of the haunting eyes. As is Nolan’s way, the scale looks grandiose, no doubting that the battle scenes will be full-on, visceral, heart-thumping depictions of the worse elements of war and battle. I am still not even slightly excited for this new film.
I have never been a fan of war films. I have yet to get through even the first hour of Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan held no interest whatsoever for me, I watched Black Hawk Down on a recommendation and can only remember a lot of helicopters! War films really are not my thing. I have seen a few old classics; The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Great Escape, Full Metal Jacket, M.A.S.H, to name a few, but even the Midas touch of Tarantino failed to elicit a liking for war films, with Inglorious Basterds my least favourite of his films and I include the risible Deathproof in that.
I probably will succumb to the Nolan pull and end up seeing Dunkirk as I love his cinematic verve. I probably should get around to watching Apocalypse Now as it is considered the benchmark in war films. Maybe, hopefully, I’ll enjoy it.

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What Do You Like?

Criticism is a natural byproduct of making one’s work, efforts, available for public scrutiny. If you are a creative artist of any kind, be it writing, painting or drawing, film or sculpture, the only way you can hope to make a living off of your talents or passion is to draw attention to it. These days, every artist, of any description, has an online presence.
Visual artist especially, still tend to have their own websites, a hub where all of their works can be viewed in one place. For the true millennial generation, those who don’t know that the Twitter one hundred and forty character format is the maximum amount you used to be able to text by phone, the building of a dedicated website is pointless. Why would you build a website when you can get just as much traffic – if not more – through existing platforms that everyone is already familiar with.
With the exception of Instagram, on social media platforms, you can link to other webpages where your work can be more fully appreciated or purchased, or more information gained or any number of options. Linking creates a doable action, unlike the passivity of browsing a website.
Join a group on Facebook or a discussion on Twitter, gain a following on WordPress or views on YouTube, your name is out there known by the masses. So anytime you produce a new work or write something it is available for scrutiny. What about when you actually want some helpful critiques, what happens then? Nobody likes to be criticised, no matter how well meaning the criticism is. If your work is at a stage where you feel it can be shown to the world, a caustic critique of said work, true or not, will not be appreciated.
There is always a horrible dilemma when watching the work of a new filmmaker, one does not want to suppress their enthusiasm, yet still, there are fundamental mistakes that should be pointed out. Technical stuff is easily correctable and can be excused when it comes to the inexperienced, but there are aspects that are harder to ignore.
With so many tutorials and blogs, information and behind-the-scenes videos about filmmaking and the creative process, it seems inconceivable that anyone new to the filmmaking process would make rookie errors. Of course, being rookies, they make rookie errors. Scenes are flat or run too long, they look stagey, very little movement, just the camera pointing at people talking or, the worse thing, the actors are not very good.
I recently watched a short film – it was more a scene – where the filmmaker had posted the work for a competition and asked people in the group to watch it. Wanting to like it – I always want to like it – and wanting to support the efforts of any fellow fledgeling filmmaker, I clicked the link to give it a watch, after all, it was only three minutes long. Unfortunately, the acting was wooden and the story pretty much nonexistent, though it was nicely shot.
Even as I write the words, disparaging another filmmakers work, I feel like a condescending prick, having not put anything or any relevance out into the world myself in some years. The dichotomy of being both a film critic and filmmaker is not lost on me. Still, I am torn when it comes to criticising another’s work. Should one’s critique be truthful, explaining every dislike and point of contention? After all, it is just my opinion that said actors are not particularly good, others may view the same film and like the – in my opinion – stilted performances.
Does one say, no matter how well-meaning, if another person’s work is not up to scratch? And what qualifies a person to be a relevant critic? Knowing what is good is arbitrary, a view different from person to person. One person’s love of Citizen Kane does not make them the doyen of good taste and judgement. What is good or not is entirely down to the viewer, that is why films that critics have hated sometimes become massive hits and films that they have loved have gone down the pan. Nobody knows anything.
I suppose one just has to make what one likes and hope others like it, it is all anybody can do.

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No Damn Idea Why

The more I learn about filmmaking the less sure I am. I know that a good or excellent script is a basic requirement, it being the blueprint for any journey into filmmaking, but can any film lover honestly say they have not watched a film, with a less than stellar script, that has not only been enjoyable but become a hit? Conversely, I have seen brilliantly scripted films, with creditable performances, gain no traction whatsoever.
Of all film genres, it is possibly the rom-com that reflects this phenomenon the most. The boy-meets-girl, falls for her, loses her and wins her back again, is one of the most recognised storylines ever. Getting it right is still about more than a good script.
Pretty Woman, the film that catapulted Julia Roberts to superstardom and brought Richard Gere’s career out of the doldrums, was a standard Cinderella story elevated by the unexpected chemistry between the two leads and the then little known Roberts matching Gere’s ever committed performance.
Moreover, many a film, even with the proliferation of script doctors and story experts, still manage to make fundamental storytelling mistakes, the kind of errors that get fledgeling screenwriters works shoved straight into the reject pile at many a production company. Take the present fashion for superhero films. I love the Marvel films, kicking off with the little known Iron Man, they have grown into a juggernaut of a cinematic story-verse.
However, if you look at the stories that all of these heroes have been built around, with the exception of a few of the films – Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers – though all of the films have good or adequate protagonists, the antagonist in a lot of the films have been weak and forgettable, with an emphasis on dramatic set pieces at the expense of plot and character development.
Obviously, in an established franchise or series, there is some leeway, the strength of the property allowing for a less than perfect script or story. Still, there are many examples where this is not the case, the classic Patrick Swayze film Dirty Dancing is one such film. The script of Dirty Dancing is poor. Fish-out-of-water meets have and have nots premise, Dirty Dancing is another film where the chemistry of the cast, plus the wholehearted commitment to the telling of the story elevates the film.
I suppose it is the collaborative nature, with so many having opinions, a persuasive individual with the ear of an influencer can get a weak script made, even if it is neither original – there are no original stories after all – or even being told in a different way. Sometimes things just get made. There is also no accounting for taste, with so many examples of films of the past being critical flops on release only to finding critical acclaim and cult followings later in life.
William Goldman, the legendary screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man and The Princess Bride said about filmmaking: nobody knows anything…not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess, if you’re lucky, an educated one. This was a man who could write a screenplay.
It strikes me that one could and probably does waste a considerable amount of time learning to make films and write films, studying structure, theory, themes, character development and plotting, but still make a film that nobody wants to see. You could also strike gold and everybody might want to see your film, there is just no definitive correct way to make a film, no matter what all the film gurus and self-proclaimed doyens of cinema might have you believe.
The takeaway from this has to be to just do your own thing. Hopefully, someone will like it, if you’re lucky, loads of people might like it. After all, loads of people liked White Chicks, a film both brilliant and terrible. Go figure.

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Trailer Trash For Cash

I went to see Baby Driver today. A good film I really enjoyed it. I won’t be reviewing it as I am sure there are ample reviews of it already and I don’t feel I have anything different to add. If you want a review you can go here.
The cinema was pretty busy for a Monday afternoon, a time usually reserved for film geeks and the retired. As the film has been out for at least a week and is directed by the not at all a household name Edgar Wright, it was definitely odd to see a semi-full theatre. After ejecting somebody from my seat – again not a Monday afternoon thing – I sat down to the trailers.
For awhile now I have felt that movie trailers are all a bit rubbish. They are especially bad for event, tentpole films that have a ready, eager audience, barely bothering to do much more than string together a few ‘exciting’ set pieces that sometimes, like in the last Fantastic Four offering, do not even end up in the film.
Even worse is when the trailer editor – it is usually a different company, unrelated to the film production that does the trailer – decides to basically show the entire plot in the trailer. It is not the worse offence of trailer making though no, the worse offence perpetrated by a trailer is when the trailer’s promise is better than the film it is promoting. There is nothing worse than getting pumped up for a film, watching all the promotional material, not just the trailers but the interviews with cast members, the director, b-roll clips and all the hullabaloo that can surround a big film, especially in the case of a franchise, for the film to then turn out to be a turd.
Generally, I have a sort of loose rules surrounding big movies, if the stars of the film are doing too much press, appearing on multiple chat shows, doing radio interviews, going crazy on social media. If Jai Courtney is in it, if the poster is lazy and kind of rubbish – Baby Driver actually bucks the trend, terrible poster, great film. I ignored my rules when it came to Terminator Genisys and ended up walking out of the film forty minutes in.
I believed James Cameron – even though he came up with one of the worse fake mineral names in movie history in the over hyped Avatar, with the evil humans looking to steal ‘Unobtainium’! – he did, however, make the masterpiece that is The Terminator and follow it with one of the best sequels I have ever seen in T2. When he endorsed Genisys, I thought; okay, it’s probably worth a look. It didn’t matter that every sequel, after the second one, had been pretty rubbish or that Jai Courtney was in it – he was also in the worse Die Hard film, didn’t catch me out with Suicide Squad though! DC and Jai Courtney? No chance! – All the previews looked good, the beautiful Emilia Clarke was one of the stars. Admittedly she has never been any good in anything outside of Game Of Thrones and I’ve only watched two episodes of that (gasp!). So I ignored the overly busy poster – a sure sign that they are not confident – the extravagant press junket, Arnie going full politician level, charm offensive. I got bamboozled and sucked in. Never again.
The trailer for the Tom Cruise starrer, The Mummy, was seven minutes – seven! – long. That is longer than my last two short films! If you have to release a seven minute trailer in an effort to persuade people to see your film, it is probably time to get back in the editing suite.
I have gone off on somewhat of a tangent with this blog, ranting as oppose to contrasting, which is what I had planned to do, the trailer topic having been prompted by a trailer I saw for a film called 6 Days, based on the Iranian hostage siege in London in the eighties. I watched it initially thinking, this looks boring, even with the ever excellent Mark Strong as one of the leads. Then the trailer just builds, the hostage negotiator (Strong) trying to resolve an impossible situation, the SAS, lead by Jamie Bell, planning to breach the embassy and the British government wanting to be seen as strong and resourceful in dealing with a terrorist threat. All of this is conveyed in a less than three minute trailer. This is a film I want to see and, as it is based on a true story, I already know how it ends. That is the power of a good trailer, promising a good and engaging story, not endless explosions and shaky camera movements.

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