Thursday, January 21, 2010


We went to see Avatar. The movie is about a soldier who is sent to conquer a non-hierarchical, non-aggressive indigenous people who live in perfect harmony with nature, but who ends up defending them against the evil forces of modernity and corporate greed. It’s a story we’ve seen before many, many times. South Park got it right when they called it “Dances with Smurfs”. And need I even point out that the movie wouldn’t even exist without the forces of modernity and corporate greed, since non-hierarchical, non-aggressive indigenous people who live in perfect harmony with nature don’t spend half a billion dollars making 3-D movies. They’re too busy dying before the age of 30 for that.

We had a rather more interesting movie-going experience the following week, however, when we went to see another Christmas blockbuster. The interest was in seeing the succession of trailers that preceded the movie itself.

In one, Denzel Washington plays the survivor of a nuclear holocaust, who is being pursued by an army of post-apocalyptic goons. He turns out to be a one-man killing machine, and the trailer contains one rapidly cut scene after another of him shooting, slashing, stabbing, punching, kicking, and blowing up waves of adversaries. There are also stupendous car crashes. Although it is not shown, this will probably culminate in him fighting the leader of baddies, played by Gary Oldman, while the life of Washington’s fish-out-of-water-but-learning-the-game female sidekick hangs in the balance. The bad guy will probably be killed by falling from a great height. I don’t recall the movie’s name.

The second trailer was for an action-buddy caper starring John Travolta and that British actor who is in everything these days but who is not Jude Law. You know the one. Anyway, they play spies or something, with the not-Jude Law as the fish-out-of-water-learning-the-game sidekick, while John Travolta, who turns out to be a killing machine, does much shooting, slashing, stabbing, punching, kicking, and blowing up waves of enemies. There are also stupendous car crashes. The sidekick has a wife. Although it’s not shown in the trailer, I predict that in the final act of the film the wife will be kidnapped and held hostage by the leader of bad guys, while Travolta and sidekick fight him and his minions in an abandoned warehouse or a factory at night. The factory’s machinery will be producing a great deal of steam and red and greenish lights will be on, even though there is nobody around. The leader of the bad guys will probably fall from a great height. I don’t recall the movie’s name.

The third trailer was for a revenge flick starring Mel Gibson, who plays a tough cop whose daughter is murdered in front of him on Christmas or something. He sets out to investigate her death and discovers a vast conspiracy. Waves of baddies are sent against him, and much shooting, slashing, stabbing, punching, kicking, and blowing up follows. There are also stupendous car crashes. Although it’s not shown in the trailer, I predict that Gibson’s character will be framed for a crime he didn’t commit at some point in the film, and will end up the run from the police and so on. I also predict that the final act of the film will involve Gibson fighting the main bad guy, possibly in an abandoned warehouse or in a factory at night. The leader of the bad guys will probably fall from a great height. I don’t recall the movie’s name.

The came the movie itself: Sherlock Holmes. As you probably know by now, in this movie, Holmes is re-invented as action hero, and it follows Holmes and Watson (played by the actual Jude Law) as they shoot, slash, stab, punch, kick, and, yes, blow up waves of enemies who are part of a vast conspiracy. There are no stupendous car crashes (it’s the 1880s, after all), but a ship does crash rather stupendously. In the end, Holmes fights the leader of the bad guys on London Bridge, still under construction, but with nary a construction worker in sight. Needless to say, the life of the female lead hangs in the balance. The leader of the bad guys falls to his death from a great height. Notice I do not say “spoiler alert!” above, as there’s nothing to spoil: anyone who has been watching movies for the past twenty years or so knows the formula.

A common criticism of movie critics is that they are out-of-touch with what the general public likes. But if you watched two hundred or more movies per year, and half of them were action films like these, and the other half were romantic comedies (and half of those starred the same half-dozen actors), you’d crave something different, too. I often hear people say, “But when I go to the movies, I don’t want a complex story or deep characters or a message. I just want to shut my brain off for a couple of hours and enjoy myself.” Uh-huh. May I suggest that the kinds of people who like movies such as Transformers 2 hardly need an excuse to shut their brain off? Turning it on, on the other hand...

Later that night we (legally) downloaded and watched a wry observation piece, Away We Go, about two 30-somethings, about to have a baby, who visit friends around the country in an effort to find a place they can call home. It was a good movie, not great, but worth the download, and it was nice to see something where nobody was shot, slashed, stabbed, punched, kicked, or blown up, and where every car survived the movie intact. And the female lead wasn’t held hostage while the boys fought it out in an abandoned but steam-producing factory.

They say that the Hollywood system is on its last legs. The media continues breathlessly to report the biggest opening day weekends year after year (have these people never heard of inflation?) but the actual number of tickets being sold is in decline as people abandon the monsto-plexes for increasingly affordable home movie theatres. For about $2000 now – relative to inflation, a fraction of what TVs cost thirty years ago — you can get a big screen, surround sound, high resolution movie players, and, of course the comforts of movies at home, including pause buttons and beer.

Is the Hollywood system on its last legs? I don’t know. I don’t fully understand the economics of it. If it is, good riddance. Because right now that system is creatively dead, holding audiences of hyper-hormonal late teenage males in their thrall while more discerning viewers are metaphorically shot, slashed, stabbed, punched, kicked, blown up, run over, and then pushed from high heights.


Graham Broad said...

This early update brought to you by the Academy Award Winning Director of blah blah blah.

The photo is of a car, blowing up really good in any of a number of movies.

Alison Hunter said...

Excellent again, Broad. No one could say it better ... but someone else who said it quite well is B-movie GOD Bruce Campbell. I can't remember if I sent you this clip before ... you have to advance to minute 36, but his description of Hollywood as being "creatively bankrupt" is right on the money. Well worth a watch.

Andrew D said...

I agree that Hollywood has been frustrating lately. All the remakes, reboots, and sequels are annoying. Still, I think you’re being a little too harsh on Hollywood. There’s never been a time when every film it produced was worth seeing. Let me illustrate this with another example. Pretend you’re at the LCBO looking for a good bottle of wine. I bet you could find five or six really good ones, but there’s also two or three hundred on the shelves that aren’t even worth the effort of pouring down the drain. The only reason you have access to those rare good bottles at numerous locations across the city is because the LCBO is the largest purchaser of alcohol in the world. Economies of scale at work. So don’t fret when Avatar becomes the highest grossing film of all time (inflation aside). All it means is that 20th Century Fox just gained the means to distribute the next ten films that the people behind Away We Go produce.

Speaking of Avatar, I agree that the script for Cameron’s latest was creatively bankrupt, recycled, and disappointing (we part ways on your description of the Na’vi as “non-hierarchical”). Still, I encourage my fellow fans of film to see it as it was meant to be seen: in theatres. I know that there have been other 3D films, but the technology used for this film was something different. I’ve always thought 3D was just a gimmick, but Avatar convinced me that it’s here to stay. Just to be clear, my interest in 3D films goes beyond a simple “that’s pretty” sentiment. It seems like the beginning of a bigger change in how North American’s experience film. There are already dozens of 3D feature films headed to a multiplex near you in 2010 and 2011. I obviously agree with the people who say that special effects are less important than a good story, but I still strongly believe that it is necessary to acknowledge the potential (good and bad) of 3D. Film is an incredibly powerful medium of communication. You think video games make it difficult to teach kids about history? Just wait until someone films a reenacted D-Day invasion with Cameron’s technology and calls it a “documentary”. My main point is that while Avatar leaves a lot to be desired, it’s still an important piece of film making that signals a change in a very influential form of communication.

Funny story about Bruce Campbell. One of my only “celebrity encounters” is with him. By “celebrity encounter”, I mean that I drove for two hours and then waited in line for another two just to shake his hand and listen to him speak. During his speech he delivered almost exactly the same line about Batman Begins as he does in Alison's YouTube video. Sure he gets peppered with the same questions over and over again, but Hollywood is aiming at the same audience and it’s kind of funny to listen to him recycle speeches as he criticizes Hollywood for being creatively bankrupt.


P.S. I take it back Ash. You're still the king.

Anthony said...

As a man beginning his journey to become a Hollywood screenwriter I certainly understand these sentiments. But there are many great movies being produced every year even if they don't get the same attention as the big blockbusters. I do concede that these formulaic films are tiresome, but don't give up on films just yet. There are excellent writers and directors doing great work everyday, and I certainly hope to be one of them someday.

Cheers from Korea