Tag Archives: RoboCop

Thursday’s Child — Caravaggio, Poverty P*rn, and Superhero Wardrobes

Thursday’s Child is what happens when Wednesday Collective runs long or gets pushed a day. The only requirement is that it features a David Bowie song in the opening paragraph. Let’s go with that time he told Trent Reznor how he feels about Americans.

ARTICLE OF THE WEEK
Get to Know Filmmaking’s Most Influential Painter

Stephen Akey

Caravaggio

A big part of filmmaking (and critiquing) is knowing your art history. Hell, we wouldn’t have the establishing shot as we know it without Impressionism. Even as a viewer, you never know when that knowledge is going to enhance a movie. Hieronymus Bosch’s carnally oppressive, otherworldly madhouses pop up in thankfully brief, soul-scathing moments of Noah. The first Hunger Games owes its incredibly immediate sense of place to the Depression-era photography of Dorothea Lange.

War photography – especially from failed wars like Vietnam – has heavily influenced the Mexican-Spanish pulp resurgence. I suspect it reflects the lost wars that led to decades of Fascist rule under the PRI in Mexico and under Franco (after the Spanish Civil War) in Spain. Everything from Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim has found glum, terrifying moments to reflect on their personal ideas of loss, ones that never fail to horrify more than any battle or monster can.

Perhaps no single painter has influenced filmmaking more than Caravaggio: the stark close-ups of Carl Dreyer’s formative 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc; the matter-of-fact, sometimes uncomfortably foregrounded violence of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epics; the precise arrangement of players and light in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather; all the way through to the striking use of color and composition of Zack Snyder’s 300. Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, Tarsem Singh’s Immortals, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the list goes on and on.

Martin Scorsese might be the filmmaker who, early in his career, embraced him the most. Caravaggio seeped through the seediest moments of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The painter was, as Scorsese once told Caravaggio biographer Andrew Graham-Dixon, the entire reason for doing The Last Temptation of Christ.

Caravaggio himself had an interesting life. Not unlike a Scorsese character, Caravaggio had been formed by a violent, hardscrabble upbringing that was both key to his many successes and his strange, historical mystery of a downfall. He found more comfort with gangs, beggars, and prostitutes than he did with high society, and he was exceptionally clever at revealing – both in life and in his paintings – that high society played at that very same, cutthroat level.

Thanks to Chris Braak over at Threat Quality Press for pointing this article out.

What is Poverty Porn?
Tom Roston

Rich Hill

Don’t worry, it’s safe for work. I’ve talked a lot about the ‘genre of excess’ that Izzy Black proposed a few months ago. It seeks to make an accounting of at-any-cost stories of social and financial success, but it refuses to judge the characters therein (think The Wolf of Wall Street, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring).

The inevitable corollary of that is “poverty porn.” As Roston writes, it’s used to describe an image of the poor “that takes on an almost fetishistic quality, wherein the audience savors how miserable people can get. This can happen even with the best intentions, like those extended commercials for charities in which barefoot children from a third world country stare into the camera.” It takes shape in large part when documentary filmmakers each seek to out-bleak each other in the pursuit of funding.

Roston suggests a “poverty porn clean-up crew,” and has an interesting proposition to form it.

Work It, Superman
Lauren Davis

Supermidriff

That’s quite a get-up Superman has there. You wouldn’t take him seriously. I wouldn’t take him seriously. Yet it’s pretty standard for women in superhero comics. Why does what superheroes wear matter? What does it tell the youth being brought up on them?

I’m thankful Marvel’s had the sense to mostly skip this sort of fetishism in their film adaptations. For Black Widow’s co-leading role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she’s mostly portrayed wearing something sensible with a leather jacket. As I’ve said before, her most notable accessory is an assault rifle with an underslung grenade launcher. It’s Captain America who appears in various states of undress and just has to break into the Smithsonian when every federal agency is looking for him. Why? To get the right piece of fashion for saving the world. It’s a refreshing and humorous twist.

What Captain America, RoboCop, and Her Say About Surveillance
Willie Osterweil

Captain Military Industrialism 2

I don’t entirely agree with this piece. First of all, never ever start an article off by insulting a large group of people (in this case, liberals) – it signals you’re either playing to a base, or you’re too narrow-minded to consider your opponent as anything other than a hive-mind. Both mean that anyone sitting on the fence, as well as many sensible people who are already on your side, will consider you shrill and discount both your opinion and your effectiveness as someone who can influence others.

Secondly, I don’t agree with many of Osterweil’s points. But that’s no reason not to highlight someone else’s work if he makes those points intelligently.

Osterweil ultimately presents a challenging article about the use and interplay of surveillance and gender dynamics in Captain America, the RoboCop remake, and the Oscar-winning Her.

As an aside that this article touches on, I myself have become increasingly on-the-fence about Spike Jonze as a director. Critical kryptonite, I know. It’s not because of any fault in his abilities – if anything, he might be the best American director when it comes to marrying the various technical elements of film (visual structure, production design, costume, cinematography, editing) to pure artistic flair. More than anything else, perhaps no director has ever used sound as expertly and emotionally as he has. But man, his films’ views of women as creatures too erratic to think of others and as the cause and solution of every problem in a man’s life, no matter how young or old…it grates.

Throw onto that his production and story roles in the Jackass films, which increasingly think hidden camera is meant to be an excuse to sexually harass and abuse women without repercussions, and I have some serious reservations about many of Jonze’s values as a storyteller.

The Price of Rebooting a Successful Franchise
Scott Mendelson

Spidey Fight

Forbes is a terrible magazine when it comes to knowing what the real world is like. It’s also not often very good at analyzing economic policy, but when it comes to analyzing individual industries, it can actually be quite on-the-money (in this way, it’s the exact inversion of The Economist).

Here’s a rather good article on how Sony originally planned to reboot Spider-Man as a smaller, more personal story focusing on secret identity Peter Parker’s school life, with the action being less extravagant and more intimate. Now, I quite liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which could deliver fantastic individual scenes but not an entire, cogent story. The best moments undeniably involved Andrew Garfield’s interplay with Emma Stone and Dane DeHaan, when their characters were just bumming around New York and working out their personal issues. A Spider-Man focused on that? Brave, but with this group I have no doubts they could have made it special.

Instead, Sony (just like Warner Bros. is) got jealous of Marvel’s Avengers canon and – instead of blazing their own path – decided the best financial option would be to copy Marvel wholesale and go as big and multiple as possible. The result is…well, it’s certainly not the windfall Sony imagined, and the franchise may not even have the financial success it could’ve if they’d just stuck with Sam Raimi at the helm and Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man another few films.

On a personal note, Spider-Man got rebooted after five years. It’s been 10 years since the last Blade movie. Get on it, New Line.

Screw the Movie, We’re Making a Production

Lohan The Canyons

One of the most successful movies of last year was the critically reviled The Canyons. Now, this takes some explaining. The Canyons was not a good movie. Written by Bret Easton Ellis, directed by Paul Schrader, and promised a film about the future of movies, we imagined the possibility of a searing assault on the conscience similar to Ellis’s previous American Psycho. Instead, The Canyons was a wooden collection of uninteresting psycho-drama, soap opera filmmaking, and borderline soft-core. It cast Lindsay Lohan opposite adult film star James Deen.

One of the most intriguing – and accurate – theories about the film is that the entire production was a piece of performance art by Ellis, that the process of putting the movie together – recorded in painstaking detail by journalists and tabloid reporters alike – was the real commentary. The performance lies in those details and in our obsession and reaction to them, not in anything put on-screen. That a movie was made was just an unavoidable side effect. In that way, The Canyons may be one of the most important efforts in filmmaking we’ve seen in years. It’s just not one of the most important films.

John Patterson at The Guardian writes about The Canyonscontemplation on the wreckage of cinema.

Adam Batty at the beautifully titled Hope Lies at 24 Frames a Second writes about Schrader’s transcendental style.

And, of course, here’s Lili Anolik’s brilliant original article, Post-Empire Strikes Back, which lays out the argument for Ellis’s the-production-is-art, screw-the-movie approach to what he wants to say. This article in particular is for mature audiences only.

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned That the Most Outlandish Ideas in That Film Were True
Erich Schlosser

Dr Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove is Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 black comedy about the dangers of nuclear war. It posited a number of ridiculous contrivances – that a general who up and lost it one day could single-handedly launch a nuclear attack with no authorization. That the Soviets had built a “dead hand” system wherein nuclear weapons would be launched automatically if the Kremlin couldn’t be reached.

These were all insane and ribald concepts as to how the military of both countries really worked. Right? They were exaggerations Kubrick and crew made to make a point. Right? Turns out not so much – the reality was far riskier than the insanity Dr. Strangelove proposed.

How China Keeps Bruce Willis Alive – The Changing Face of Global Box Office

Bruce Willis GI Joe

Analyzing which movies succeed and flop isn’t as easy as it used to be. Take The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, one of a dozen garden-variety supernatural young adult movies made after the success of Twilight. The film cost $60 million to make (advertising additional), and it only made $31 million back in the United States. After opening weekend, it was singled out as a cautionary tale for other studios. Revisiting the film after a drawn-out international release reveals, however, that it tripled its take when foreign box office was considered. Add in home release sales and rental, and City of Bones made a tidy profit. A sequel is even in development.

Google “Need for Speed flops” and you’ll see publications ranging from major industry analysts like Forbes to popular online magazines like Uproxx declaring the film a major bomb that threatens DreamWorks’ entire yearly financial outlook. True, Need for Speed did thud into U.S. theaters with a lackluster $17 million opening weekend. This caused an industry-wide race to be the loudest voice turning its flop into a cautionary, knew-it-all-along warning about why movies based off of video games will never be profitable.

Then a funny thing happened. A week later, the film’s topped $130 million worldwide, with weeks left in theaters and many major territories yet to open. A huge hit in China, Need for Speed will make its $66 million production budget back in that country alone.

Need for Speed open

We typically look at the top movies of a week or a year through American eyes only. The relaunch of RoboCop, for instance, had a $100 million production budget. It’s made only $57 million domestic. Considering the advertising involved, it lost at least $100 million in the U.S. It will be remembered by entertainment journalists as a complete flop. And yet…its worldwide haul sits at $237 million and growing fast.

You might ask yourself why they keep making Die Hard sequels when it’s clear that U.S. audiences have passed the point of diminishing returns on the franchise. Because 80% of the last entry’s $300 million haul came from overseas, that’s why.

In fact, Bruce Willis has achieved only modest success in the U.S. the last five years. He is not a sure domestic draw anymore, but he remains at the top of casting lists because he’s so popular in Australia, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and Western Europe. It is virtually impossible to make a Bruce Willis film without making money. He guarantees that, even if a movie under-performs at home, it will make a sizable profit.

Hansel and Gretel

Films like Need for Speed and 2013’s Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters are the mid-budget models for post-holiday releases going forward. American audiences don’t flock to the theater January through March, when Winter is at its worst, but many foreign audiences do. After a disappointing January weekend in which Hansel and Gretel opened a weak slew of movies, it was declared a financial failure. It eventually hit $225 million worldwide. For a film that cost $50 million to produce, that meant a huge financial success and, like City of Bones, a sequel in development.

A week ago, Need for Speed was a complete financial disaster of a film. The concept of its challenging Fast and Furious as a franchise was a joke. Now, it’s one of the hottest international properties, and a sequel has to be on the table.

City of Bones

The United States alone does not dictate box office success anymore. It hasn’t been that way for more than a decade, but it’s become especially apparent in recent years as other countries build more theaters and their own film industries. Studios now engineer films with international release strategies, and add extra footage to movies like Looper to tailor them for foreign audiences. The 2010 remake of The Karate Kid was cleverly re-edited for Chinese theaters so that it wasn’t about a transplanted American boy learning kung fu after being beaten up by Chinese bullies, but rather about a displaced American troublemaker who instigated fights himself and – through kung fu – learned to adjust to his new country.

If the industry has changed, why haven’t the journalists, analysts, and bloggers who cover it? It’s time to stop deciding whether a film is successful from a box office standpoint after the first U.S. weekend. Cautionary tales are great to write and all, but people who tell them every week have a bad habit, not a useful perspective. They’re no longer looking at the full picture.

I’d also like to add…RoboCop, After Earth, Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters, A Good Day to Die Hard…can we please stop saying American audiences have bad taste? If we do, it’s pretty clear we’re not the only ones.

Box office statistics for this article are drawn from the top two websites on the subject – Box Office Mojo and Box Office Guru.

Great Action, Lousy Plot — “Need for Speed”

Need for Speed open

Need for Speed is a movie about illegal street racing that follows a convoluted story of revenge. Simple developments are over-explained while gaping plot holes are casually swept under the rug. Its story is not told well. So the movie is bad, right?

Not so fast. The stuntwork is top of the line, ranging from straight-up racing and dazzling crashes to 80 mph refuels and taking “riding shotgun” too literally. The stunts are all practical, meaning that professional stunt drivers actually performed them in real cars. None are created by CGI. This lends Need for Speed a breakneck energy that only the very best action movies can rival. And what else do you go see a movie about street racing for, if not the stunts? So the movie is a success, right?

Need for Speed is neither good nor bad. Every scene in a car or following one is superb. Every scene with feet planted firmly on ground drags. Since the movie splits its time half-and-half, it alternately demands and loses your attention. Most of the non-road moments are dealt with early on, so if you can make it through a lengthy setup, the payoff is worth it.

Need for Speed just kiss already

Tobey is a street racer who runs a failing garage for high-end cars. His old rival, Dino, is now a successful racer who is married to Tobey’s ex. Tobey is played by Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) whose pathos makes up for Dominic Cooper (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) playing Dino as so unabashedly evil that I’m disappointed he never gets to nefariously twirl a mustache. Dino hires Tobey to finish building a legendary Ford Mustang, but the two can’t set their rivalry aside. Instead of splitting the sale, they race for the entire pot of $2.7 million. The race ends tragically: Tobey is sent to prison for a vehicular murder that Dino commits.

It’s difficult to feel too bad for Tobey, however. We’re introduced to him nearly driving over a homeless man during a race. The movie plays it for laughs – he only runs over the man’s worldly possessions. Hilarious, right? During Tobey and Dino’s race, Tobey is forced into oncoming traffic. It’s exciting, yet our hero is running innocent commuters off the road and causing high-speed collisions. Even if Tobey’s conviction isn’t precisely on the money, it’s hard to feel as if he doesn’t deserve it.

Need for Speed poots

The Fast and Furious franchise at least has the good sense to couch its disaster-filled car chases in Robin Hood-style robberies of dictators and gangsters. This gives us the excuse that all the senseless collateral damage is about the greater good, not some individual racer’s ego. The saving grace of Need for Speed is that this cast pushes through it all with so much bright-eyed vigor that it’s infectious. This is in large part due to Imogen Poots. She plays Julia, a luxury car expert who becomes Tobey’s romantic interest. It’s easy to root for Paul and Poots, who really look like they’re having fun, rather than the scummy characters they play.

Most of the film takes place after Tobey’s release from prison. He races cross-country to join the DeLeon, a mythical race put on by Monarch. Other characters keep insisting nobody knows who Monarch is, even though he’s a billionaire, hosts an internet show that consists of a close-up of his own face, and seems to have given his super-secret home phone number to every single person on Earth. It’s OK, because in the long history of characters whose existence in their own movies makes no sense, there is one actor who’s made this nonsense his specialty – Michael Keaton (RoboCop). He pulls off Monarch with the heated, nonstop ADD of a veteran actor who’s having the time of his life slumming it in a B-movie.

Need for Speed keaton

Why will winning the DeLeon give Tobey his revenge? It’s never said, but it’s worth a lot of money. Dino is kind enough to provide a reason by joining the DeLeon at the last second. He also leaves evidence of Tobey’s wrongful conviction and his own guilt unprotected on his computer’s desktop, where his wife can access it in approximately 10 seconds. Maybe he’s not such a bad guy, after all.

Few films achieve the cosmic balance between good and bad that Need for Speed does. In a way, it reminds me of the bus from the 90’s Keanu Reeves movie Speed. The infectious acting and stuntwork are enough to keep you on board. Any dialogue taking place under the speed limit, however, and the plot explodes. Need for Speed is rated PG-13 for disturbing crashes, nudity, and language.