Get Over Yourselves, America! The Movies Don’t Need You, Anymore!

For many decades, one simple truth has reigned over the global film industry: for a film to truly be a success, it must be a success in America.  America: the home of Hollywood!  It’s where the biggest celebrities on the planet make their names!  Even if they don’t actually live there, it’s where they go to get rich and famous.  Good old American money.  They wouldn’t be anywhere without it!

But that’s changing.

Even now, as an American, I can tell you that practically every other American moviegoer believes a movie lives and dies on the American box office.  Nothing else matters.  In fact, do they even release movies in other countries?  Once upon a time, that may have been true.  But the international box office is becoming a force.  China, especially, has really stepped up in the last five years or so and, suddenly, it’s not uncommon for a film to make more money there than it does in North America.  And I’m not talking about foreign films that Americans have never even heard of; I’m referring to American films.  Big ones.  In fact, let’s start with this one.

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“Dependence upon American box office is going extinct!”

 

Americans love to pretend that they hate Michael Bay’s Transformers films.  Even I didn’t care for the first one, but can admit that they can be fun distractions, despite their lack of substance.  And the most recent one, Age of Extinction, is actually my favorite.  But we Americans loved to rag on it.  I saw many a social media commenter talking about how it “only” made $245 million and how the end was near for the franchise.  Well, they were kind of right.  It certainly made $245 million . . . in North America.  Internationally, it grossed an additional $859 million for a worldwide total of approximately $1.1 billion on a $210 million budget.  All it really needed to gross in order to turn a profit was about $525 million (or approximately 2.5 times its budget).  No sweat.  Especially after it made $320 million in China, alone – more than in North America.  Sensing the rising Chinese tide, Bay set part of the film in China, making an already-promising box office into a phenomenal one.  Marvel did something similar with Iron Man 3, adding one small scene set in China (the scene did not make the domestic cut of the film).  It worked, giving the film a boost to $121 million in China.

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“I’ll use the tiny ship and sail overseas, where they still love me.”

 

Here’s another example, from just this past weekend.  Movie lovers everywhere waited with baited breath to see how well the attempted revival of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise would go over.  Once the undisputed champion of the box office, the series faltered with the fourth installment, On Stranger Tides, and it appeared to be the end.  Reports came out at the conclusion of the 2017 Memorial Day weekend that the film had pulled in $63 million for the three-day weekend and, counting Memorial Day, $78 million over the four-day weekend.  Solid numbers, but not up to the property’s past standards (it’s the second-lowest opening weekend in franchise history, behind the first film.  Dead Man’s Chest opened with a $135 million three-day weekend.).

But what most Americans didn’t bother to notice is that the film also raked in $248 million in international markets (including $68 million in China) for a $326 million total.  With a $230 million budget, it needs about $250 million more to turn a profit.  It looks promising, even with little support from America.

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A reason for a picture of Emilia Clarke.

 

I saw Me Before You because I have a crush on Emilia Clarke that I’m absolutely not ashamed of in any way, shape, or form.  But, I walked out surprised by how solid the film was.  Funny, moving, poignant, and thought-provoking, with a performance by Clarke that was bound to open up more doors for her and prevent her from being stereotyped after so many years playing Daenerys Targaryen on “Game of Thrones”.  I tried to get people to listen.  They didn’t.  The film made $56 million on a $20 million budget.  Profitable, but not especially noteworthy.  Except that was only its North American intake.  Add on another $152 million from the international audience and we have a film with a brand new leading lady powerhouse that grossed over ten times its budget, making it an unqualified smash success.

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“Um . . . I’m over here.”

Here’s a question: what’s your opinion of the 2017 animated film, Your Name.?  If you’re American, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about, with the exception of the small pocket of dedicated anime fans out there.  What if I told you that Your Name. currently sits at number eight on the list of the ten highest-grossing films of 2017, right between Fifty Shades Darker and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage?  The film was released in North America.  It grossed about $5 million.  Internationally, it earned an additional $349 million – this time mostly thanks to Japan ($235 million).  I couldn’t find budget information, but rest assured, it was tiny and this film is a monstrous success, even without American support.

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“I see living dead people.”

My final example invokes the recent conclusion of a longstanding film series with Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  I recently saw some people comment about the already-announced reboot of the property, commenting that it might now be possible for those films to be successful, as if the first series wasn’t.  Oh, we silly Americans.  Yes, in North America, the movie only grossed $27 million on a $40 million budget.  Not enough.  But it didn’t need to be.  You weren’t necessary, America!  The rest of the world loves them some Resident Evil and rewarded the film with an additional $285 million for a total of almost eight times its budget.  “Oh, well, it was the conclusion.  After five other parts, they wanted to see how it would end!” you say?  So, does that explain how the fourth installment, Afterlife, grossed a total of $300 million ($240 million international) and the fifth, Retribution, scored a $240 million haul ($198 million international)?  The series was a hit, with the six films earning over $1.2 billion on a total budget of $288 million.  So, of course they’re rebooting it.  They don’t need America, but imagine if they get them, with a new take!

Filmmaking is more global than ever, and the numbers are starting to bear it out with ever-increasing frequency.  As a result, it’s becoming apparent on-screen, as well.  There are more exotic filming locations, more diverse casts, and more strategic release strategies.  Filmmakers will continue to experiment and branch out in the future, as well.  Sure, in spite of my clickbaity headline, North America is still a huge potential source of revenue for any given film studio, but now there are plenty of fish in the sea and it’s time for Americans to expand their cinematic worldview before their tastes become irrelevant, altogether.

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Get Over Yourselves, America! The Movies Don’t Need You, Anymore!

Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

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Unlike many, I have no strong feelings towards Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise.  I liked the first three (I actually preferred the second one, Dead Man’s Chest, above the others as it was the best mix of character, story, and spectacle) and didn’t much care for On Stranger Tides, but I was never extraordinarily enthusiastic about the series, nor did I feel any vitriol towards it or any of the individual films.  So, I went into this fifth installment with no particular expectations and an open mind.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is, true to the title, a tale told by living men (and women), and that tale is one of the search for Poseidon’s trident by Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley).  The film falls in nicely with the original trilogy (On Stranger Tides remains on the outside looking in) in terms of the story arc and tone.  After largely abandoning loyal fans of the series with a total change of direction in On Stranger Tides, Disney and new directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg do a course correction and return to the story of the characters that put the franchise on the map.

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Along the way, there are some fun and innovative action set pieces, continuing a property tradition.  The climax is especially unique with some sleek visuals that will set this film apart from its summer competition.  For me, however, these action beats came too far apart.  When something exciting isn’t happening, the narrative significantly slows down and even feels like it’s almost at a dead stop in a couple of places.  I actually found this to be true of the other films in the series, as well, which is why I’ve never been over the moon about them.  And this is as much a dialogue problem as a story problem.  The characters are interesting and quirky, but most of what they have to say . . . well . . . isn’t.  Having said all of that, when things pick up steam, the film moves along nicely.  Yet, while the story has real stakes, it also plays it safe.  I can understand that; there’s a lot at stake with this film and Disney needs the old fans to return and leave happy if the franchise is to continue.

They also need new blood to inject some hope for the future into the property.  And they found some.  There are a couple of new primary cast members in Thwaites’s Henry Turner and Kaya Scodelario’s Corina Smyth.  Both actors do well and the characters are important to the overarching Pirates mythology.  They have worthwhile character arcs and will likely be welcomed by fans.  Whether or not this leads to some enhanced level of stardom will depend on a number of other factors, but these are good roles for both of them to increase their profiles.

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Then, of course, we have the returning Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbosa and Johnny Depp as the ever-popular Jack Sparrow.  Rush is as perfect as ever for his part and Depp seems to relish being back in the only role people care to see him in, anymore.  I’ve tired of Depp, myself, but I have to admit that Jack Sparrow is his baby.  All of his zany, over-the-top characters that have caused so many of us to grow weary of seeing him pop up in what often seems like everything began with Jack Sparrow.  It was his first role of this nature and it’s still his best.  Even when the dialogue doesn’t play as funny as screenwriter Jeff Nathanson seems to believe, Depp’s delivery gives it a boost and often makes it funny in spite of itself.  The film isn’t hilarious, despite Depp’s earnest efforts, but its hit ratio is unquestionably much higher than that of Baywatch.

If you’re a diehard franchise fan, don’t leave until the credits have finished rolling (if you’re truly a diehard franchise fan, you’ve already seen the film and sat through the credits, by now).  The movie feels like a final chapter, nicely tying up longstanding unresolved plot threads and leaving the characters in comfortable spots that can be envisioned as a final farewell to them.  And then the post-credits stinger happens and potentially changes everything.  My guess is that Disney and the floundering Depp wanted to give a go at reviving the property one more time to see how much mileage is left.  The main narrative is crafted as a last adventure but, if it breaks out and the audience tells them that they missed it and want more, they’ve left themselves an opening.

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Ultimately, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (ugh.  What a clunky title.) falls under the same umbrella as many other sequels that have come along in 2017, such as Underworld: Blood Wars, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, and Rings: great for those who are fans, but nothing to convert those who have already decided they aren’t into the series.  I felt pretty much the same as I did about the first three Pirates films (it’s absolutely better than Tides).  I thought it was fine.  It had high points and it had some problems.  Didn’t love it.  Didn’t hate it.  I appreciated the action and Depp’s efforts and I see potential in the new faces, but it’s not a particularly compelling journey for the entirety of the running time and I would have loved some dialogue that could have kept up with the cast.  Bottom line: if you like the other movies in the series, you’ll like this.  If you don’t, you won’t.

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Review – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Review – Baywatch

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I never watched “Baywatch”.  Not one episode.  But, being a kid and teenager in the nineties, it was definitely on my radar.  I reached my twenties in the nineties, so it’s not as though I didn’t know who Pamela Anderson was.  But, even then, my standards were high enough that I didn’t watch original syndicated scripted programming.  No thanks.  No “Baywatch”, no “Hercules”, no “Xena” . . . nothing like that for me.  Almost all I knew about “Baywatch” was that it starred a number of attractive people and audiences loved to pretend that they hated it and didn’t watch it.  Except for me.  I really didn’t watch it.

When I saw the trailer for this 2017 film adaptation starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Zac Efron, I was immediately glad that director Seth Gordon and Paramount apparently decided to go the tongue-in-cheek route.  Had they presented it straight up as an action-drama (as the show was always marketed), it would have never stood a chance, and I certainly wouldn’t have bothered to see it.  As a comedy that appeared to be poking fun at itself, there was potential.  And it seemed like the perfect vehicle for the People’s Champion and our next president (#JohnsonHanks2020), the Rock.  I deemed it worthy of a chance.

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It turns out that the movie takes itself far more seriously than the marketing lets on.  Baywatch follows head lifeguard Mitch Buchanan (Johnson) and the new guy on the team, Olympic champion Matt Brody (Efron), as they investigate a criminal organization that has plans to do stereotypical organized crime stuff, which Buchanan is determined to keep far away from his beach.

As I said, I never watched the original show upon which this film is based, but I was never under the impression that it was any sort of crime program.  Whether it was or not, the film should not have been.  Aside from the lunacy of a bunch of lifeguards taking the law into their own hands (which the film directly addresses, to its credit), it just isn’t what I expect audiences want from Baywatch – and it certainly isn’t what the trailers and television spots communicate as the narrative center of the film.  Yes, elements of it were advertised, but it seemed like background noise, playing second fiddle to Brody’s attempts to prove himself worthy to Buchanan.  It’s not.  The film is a crime drama above all else.  The marketing department clearly had a better sense of what this film should be than the filmmakers, themselves.

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On top of that, the story is not only ill-conceived, it’s also poorly written.  I might have begrudgingly accepted the narrative had it been in any way fresh, compelling, or even logical.  There’s one moment in a police officer’s office that might actually be the least-believable thing I’ve ever seen in a movie.  Any.  Movie.  Less believable than Bruce Banner transforming into the Hulk.  Less believable than the end of Vacancy (watch it.  The end is awful but the rest of it is actually pretty great.).  Less believable than Katherine Heigl falling for Seth Rogan.  It strains credulity to the point of overly-dramatic eye rolls.  And much of the rest of the plot isn’t far behind.  If there’s some sort of internal logic within the film that allows that sort of thing – even if it wouldn’t make sense in the real world – then, okay.  But there isn’t.  It’s just lazy, brainless writing.

What comedy there is almost falls entirely flat.  I think I chuckled four times (in two hours – a chuckle every thirty minutes, on average), and never even came close to laughing out loud.  Most of it is sophomoric humor devoid of anything resembling wit.  There’s an audience for that, but it’s relatively small.  I’m okay with virtually any style of humor as long as it’s clever and unpredictable.  Instead, Baywatch mostly just serves up crude language and tries to pass it off as comedy.

“Well, Stephen, I hear all that.  But I just want to go for the hot girls/guys!  I saw that ‘graphic nudity’ warning in the explanation for the MPAA’s rating.  That’s all I care about!”  Great.  Then, you should stay home.  The trailer is as sexy as this movie gets.  That ‘graphic nudity’ warning is not what you think it is.  The sexiness is worth a PG-13 at most (and a soft PG-13, to boot).  In fact, the film as a whole does nothing to earn its R-rating.  It has plenty of profanity, graphic nudity that’s played for shock factor and comedy (ahem . . . “comedy”), and some violence, but the movie in no way needed to be R-rated, nor does it feel R-rated until someone forces out an f-word.

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The film honestly presents as a bait-and-switch on an audience that will be expecting an uproarious, raunchy comedy and will instead receive an uninspired, uninteresting crime movie.  I have to say, none of this is the cast’s fault.  Each of them does everything they can to make it work – especially Johnson and Jon Bass (Baywatch hopeful Ronnie Greenbaum).  I felt bad for the main trio of female lifeguards (Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, and Ilfenesh Hadera, playing Summer, C.J., and Stephanie, respectively) because the writing did nothing to differentiate one from the other.  As far as the filmmakers are concerned, they play the Brunette, the Blonde, and the Ethnic One.  Again, this is not their fault, and they each inject their own quirks into their performances whenever they can.  But it truly feels like this was written by someone from a Facebook message board who always thinks that they could make a good film, without ever having even considered what goes into actual filmmaking.

I guess if you’re a diehard fan of any of the cast members, you should still see it.  And if you just really love uninteresting, cookie-cutter crime stories or comedies that aren’t funny, then you should also see it.  But, I was hoping for something light, bright, and satirical.  Instead, I got a carrot on the end of a very long, boring stick.

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Review – Baywatch

#ThrowbackThursday – The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

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Original US release date: December 22, 2004
Production budget: $70,000,000
Worldwide gross: $154,648,887

I’ve been a fan of Charles Hart and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music from The Phantom of the Opera since middle school chorus, when one of the selections for our spring concert was a medley of songs from the play.  I never forgot those songs, but I also never managed to see the actual play.  My first exposure to the story of the Phantom was actually this film, upon its release in 2004.  I have since read the original Gaston Leroux novel, but before Joel Schumacher released this theatrical adaptation of Webber’s play, I had only a vague familiarity with the story.

There was quite a bit of excitement surrounding this release in my town.  I remember going to the theater to catch it on opening night (it formally opened in December of 2004 but that was a limited release.  It made it to the ever-ambiguous Theater Near Me the following January), but a snowstorm had shut the theater down, so I walked away disappointed.  (Snow never stops me from going out the movies.  I braved the Snowpocalypse of 2009 to catch Avatar on opening night.  Despite being a much bigger storm than the one in early 2005, the same theater remained open on that night.  Go figure.)  So, I returned to the theater, the next afternoon, to try again only to be told that the print hadn’t been delivered, yet, due to the storm from the day before!  Arrrrgh!  So, again, on that Sunday, I drive to the theater and am finally able to secure my ticket to see The Phantom of the Opera.  Finally, I’ll know the whole story!

Gerard Butler

The delays in receiving the film, that weekend, caused some pent up demand; it was a sold out show and people were happy to finally be able to watch the movie.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, that day.  The songs were as excellent, powerful, and memorable as ever and Emmy Rossum dazzled in the lead role of Christine Daae.

This re-watch went about as well, though there are a few issues that can’t go without a mention if I want to maintain any credibility (even if said credibility is only in my own head).  I’ll get to those.  First, without question, Emmy Rossum – as I mentioned – is the standout of the film.  She earned a Golden Globe nomination (alas, no Oscar nom) for the role and it was well-deserved.  She commands the attention of the viewer anytime she’s on the screen.  And what a voice!  She sings effortlessly, clearly, and with humanity; there’s no sense of trying to be overly technical or mechanical with her enunciation or her pitch.  She sings with her heart, first, and that’s the best kind of singing.  Don’t get me wrong, though – her mechanics are perfect, as well.  Rossum just delivers on every level and I simply don’t understand why this didn’t lead to huge things for her in the film world (she was a star of television’s “Shameless”, though).

Emmy Rossum

The set design, costuming, and cinematography are all pristine and lavish, as is appropriate.  The film feels exactly as it should and as one would expect it to.  Schumacher and his team knew their audience and gave them what they wanted (which, after Batman & Robin was the best thing Schumacher could have done, here.  Come on, you knew I had to mention it, right?).  The whole film has a very gothic feel to it, and jarringly (by design) jumps from the high-society sector of 19th century France to the seedy underbelly of the Phantom’s lair.  It’s all beautiful in its own way and it simply works.

Most of the remainder of the cast delivers, as well, whether their part is big or small.  Patrick Wilson is well-cast as Raoul, Christine’s love interest.  He has a nice, smooth tone to his voice and an impressive range and power.  He has gone on to do rather well for himself in the years since and he may even be nearly unrecognizable in this film to some who might not be looking for him.  Minnie Driver has a notable role, as well, that’s short on screen time but memorable, nonetheless.

And then there’s Gerard Butler as the Phantom.  Look, I like Gerard Butler just fine.  But he is simply a mediocre singer, at best.  Technically, he hits all the notes.  But it’s not easy.  His voice strains.  His vibrato is forced and unnatural.  His tone is rough.  His falsetto is cringe-worthy and nearly induces laughter.  The Phantom is supposed to be menacing.  And that, Butler can do and he can do it well.  And he does in this film.  But he’s also supposed to be Christine’s secretive vocal coach.  And it’s just impossible to buy.  When hearing the two of them, my immediate thought was that if he’s her trainer, then the pupil far surpassed the teacher right from day one.  A similar situation happened in the recent film adaptation of Les Misérables.  A big deal was made of Russell Crowe’s talk-singing in that film.  I noticed it, as everyone did, and he wasn’t great, but at least his character wasn’t purported to be some sort of master vocalist.  Butler was painfully miscast as the Phantom.  This is not Sparta.

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Outside of that, the other problems are small and innocuous.  Why – and even how? – does the Phantom have a horse in his underground lair?  And was the chandelier falling really such a huge deal that it should be remembered so long after it happened, especially since nobody died?  And, as is almost always the case, the lyrics in the choral singing performances are often difficult to distinguish.  In addition, personally, I get a little annoyed with dialogue being sung outside of the context of an actual song, though that’s probably just me.

These issues are present and notable but – for me – they aren’t overwhelming enough to affect my enjoyment of everything else.  Not even Butler drags the film down all that much, as his acting is fine, even if his singing is woefully underwhelming.  Schumacher earned such a bad reputation for himself after Batman & Robin (one more mention, sorry!  That’s the last one!  And, yes, he definitely earned it.) but he has proven that he’s not an inherently bad filmmaker; he has just made some poor creative choices.  This, overall, wasn’t one of them.  I wish someone else had played the eponymous Phantom, but Rossum and Wilson more than compensate, as do the songs themselves and the overall design of the film.  I honestly have no idea how the diehard fans of the play reacted to the movie, but I would imagine they found some fault with it, yet also plenty to love (I do remember hearing someone whine that there was little operatic singing.  The film isn’t an actual opera, it’s about an opera!  Come on, people, turn your light switches on, okay?).  And that’s where I sit.  But frankly, the good is so very good that it’s hard to walk away from the film feeling badly about the time spent watching it.  As an experience, The Phantom of the Opera is a fun, exuberant time at the movies (or on your couch, as the case may be, over twelve years later).

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Review – Alien: Covenant

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I became a fan of the Alien franchise later in life (relatively speaking).  Despite the fact that not all of the films have been of the highest standard, I remain a fan.  I love the character/creature design, probably as much as any other property out there.  I love the versatility of the franchise and how it can be horror, suspense, action, and science-fiction and it can either be these things alternatively or simultaneously.  I also loved Ridley Scott’s Prometheus – one of the many prequels (now four, though the AVP films are not canon) to his original Alien.  I still consider Prometheus to be the most beautiful film I’ve ever seen in 3D.  So, yeah, I’m – in general – a fan.

Now, Ridley Scott returns to the franchise with a sequel to Prometheus, but another prequel to Alien, with Alien: Covenant.  The reviews have been solid, though I’ve stayed away from reading them in detail.  The one complaint I’ve picked up on is that it’s “more of the same”.  Well, to that, I say, “Great!”  That’s what we want, right?

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Despite being a fan of the Alien property, I’m back-and-forth on Ridley Scott, himself.  Outside of this particular film series, I have largely found him underwhelming.  Don’t read into that.  I don’t actively dislike him or his work; I just don’t typically find myself enthusiastic about it.

So, sitting down to watch Alien: Covenant, I was hopeful, but without extraordinary expectations.  That was probably the perfect mindset to have.  The film is pretty great, but not anything that’s going to blow people’s minds.  Michael Fassbender returns to the franchise after his first appearance in Prometheus and he gets a lot to do.  I would imagine he’s thoroughly enjoying himself in these films because not only does he get to participate in something fun that has a true legacy in the film world, but he also is afforded the opportunity to show great range in his acting ability.  Most of the other characters in Covenant – aside from Katherine Waterston’s Daniels and maybe Danny McBride’s Tennessee – are largely forgettable.  But Fassbender, due to both his own talents and the writing, leaves a lasting impression that will begin to cement a permanent association between him and Alien in the minds of casual moviegoers.

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The claim that the movie is “more of the same” is only half-true.  As I mentioned, the Alien franchise lends itself to many different genres.  In the past, individual movies in the series have opted to choose one of these genres and run with it.  Alien was primarily horror, James Cameron’s Aliens was barnburning action, and Prometheus was philosophical science-fiction.  Covenant embraces the established history of the property and does it all.  For most people, one of the aforementioned triplet of earlier Alien films is likely their favorite and, no matter which of the three they prefer, they’ll get a taste of it in Covenant.  There are two ways to look at this.  On one hand, one could say that this creative approach prevents the film from staking a claim to its own identity.  On the other hand, one could also say that this is the first film to truly be all that a single Alien film can be.  None of it feels forced, because it’s all been previously established and can be easily believed as the situations surrounding the protagonists shift.  I prefer the second point of view because I don’t feel it’s my place to stifle the vision of someone like Ridley Scott, even if I’m not his biggest fan.  He gives the viewer a taste of everything and it all goes down easier than a spoonful of sugar from Yondu.

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The pacing is a little slow at the beginning and might turn some people off if they’re expecting wall-to-wall action.  I can understand that, but the payoff is worth the wait.  There’s some intense, breathtaking action mixed in with some tortuous, wonderful suspense.  One scene in particular reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (you’ll probably know it when you see it) and another features the most unfortunately timed alien attack in the franchise’s history (you’ll definitely know it when you see it).  It’s such a joy to behold and is one of my favorite film moments of the year.

Ultimately, Alien: Covenant succeeds at its primary goal: to entertain.  It adds to the mythology (though maybe not quite as much as I would have liked) and nicely closes the circle created by the overarching series narrative, while leaving room for more to be filled in, down the line.  The film doesn’t break any new ground – whether it be within the franchise or in the film world, in general – but it provides plenty of everything that has made the Alien films so popular and lasting for the last 38 years.  It will be overshadowed by bigger, shiner films over the course of the summer, but should thrill fans of the series, nonetheless.

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Review – Alien: Covenant

#ThrowbackThursday – American Beauty

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Original US release date: September 15, 1999
Production budget: $15,000,000
Worldwide gross: $356,296,601

American Beauty is the 2000 Academy Award winner for Best Picture from director Sam Mendes, in what was his first directorial outing.  I saw the film shortly after its release and I recall thinking it was fine, but I didn’t have the experience – neither in life or in film studies – to fully appreciate the level of artistry that the film puts on display.  The re-watch for this column was an eye-opener and I felt as if I was watching it for the first time, even though I remembered many of the pertinent events of the narrative.

Mendes and writer Alan Ball are adept enough to insert the film’s hook into the opening voiceover dialogue, letting the viewer know right away how the story ends (which I won’t do, in case you haven’t seen it).  Without that seemingly minor creative choice, the film would have lacked any semblance of momentum.  But, with it, every single scene, every single line of dialogue, and every single facial expression carries weight and meaning.  This film is about the journey, not the destination.  And, oh, what a journey it is.

American Beauty Spacey

An extremely generalized synopsis of American Beauty would likely state that it tells the story of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) as he enters into a midlife crisis.  But there’s much more going on than that.  There’s not a single likable character in the entire movie (with the possible exception of Allison Janney’s Barbara, but “sympathetic” is a better word than “likable” for her), but that’s largely the point.  The film presents a group of people to the audience that have lived their entire lives for other people, and not for themselves.  That, in and of itself, is representative of America.  Most of us Americans live for money or for the approval of our dad or for the cute girl or guy that works at Starbucks or for the likes that we want to get on our social media pages in order to make ourselves feel important or successful.  We define ourselves by the opinions of others.  It’s the modern American way, and it has been for a while.

This message conveyed by the film went completely over my head in all of my previous viewings (maybe two or three, all a very long time ago) and I feel bad about that.  But, hey, you live and you learn.  And that’s what these characters all struggle to do.  They yearn to break out of their self-imposed chains but have no idea how to accomplish it.  So, they’re all miserable.  They hate each other and they hate themselves.  Heck, they hate each other because they hate themselves.  Only when and if they can learn to start living as and for themselves – and no one or nothing else – can they achieve the inner peace and happiness that they’ve always desired.  Until then, no one else will ever love – or even like – them.  Yet, they all keep throwing the proverbial “stuff” at the wall to see what sticks.  They reach out to everyone else around them in desperate efforts to gain their approval, all the while perfectly content to compromise themselves in order to make it happen.  They lack individuality.  They lack conviction.  They lack confidence.  And they search in all the wrong places to find those things because they look outward instead of inward.

Mena Suvari

Despite all the misery going around in American Beauty, the film is not entirely devoid of humor.  It’s a dark humor, but a humor, nonetheless.  The dialogue is crisp, sharp, and interesting.  And each scene is more compelling than the last as the film marches steadily towards its inevitable conclusion.  The cast is impeccable, with Spacey and Annette Bening leading the way.  Both of them earned Academy Award nominations for Lead Actor/Actress (with Spacey winning) but the rest of the cast hold their own, as well.  The film is expertly crafted on all fronts and a story this poignant demands straightforward but elegant storytelling, and that’s what American Beauty provides.

Annette Bening

I failed to properly appreciate American Beauty up until this viewing.  As relevant now as it was 18 years ago (holy crap!), the film more than stands the test of time with a resonant message, timeless performances, and a perplexingly entertaining presentation in the face of some truly mortifying family dynamics that are downright uncomfortable more often than they aren’t.  But that’s this film.  This film takes the viewer out of their comfort zone in order to relay its portent and asks that a supposedly mature audience (it’s an R-rated film, after all) will be strong enough to allow themselves to be taken there.  If you’re among the willing, you ultimately will find beauty in this film and you’ll find it in the most unexpected of places – just like life.

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#ThrowbackThursday – American Beauty

Review – Colossal

Colossal

Finally!  I’ve been trying to see this movie for about a month, now.  I’m a fan of both Jason Sudeikis and Anne Hathaway (her portrayal of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises is every bit as spot-on as any other comic book-character performance ever has been), and the premise of the film sounded interesting and unique.  I definitely went out of my way to see it, today, when I didn’t really have the time to do so.  That should speak to my desire to catch it while I had the chance.

I’m so glad I did.  Colossal is one of those independent films that has wide appeal, but a small marketing budget.  I’m not going to get into the specifics of the story, as that’s better left discovered as one watches, but the narrative at its core is that a giant monster appears in Seoul, South Korea, and down-on-her-luck Gloria (Hathaway) from New York City comes to the realization that it’s somehow connected to her.

Colossal 1

On the surface, Colossal is a four-quadrant-appealing science-fiction dramedy with a high entertainment factor and lots of fun to be had.  And, if the viewer chooses, they can see the film as that and nothing more.  But how shortsighted that would be, because there is a plethora of subtleties existing between the lines and underneath the surface of this film.

Colossal functions as a parable about irresponsible alcohol use.  It also works as a deconstruction of the entitled male who feels he is owed female companionship because he’s nice and polite.  And it also serves as an illustration of the idea that we are all responsible for our own lives and the life we live is the life that we choose.  There is a lot of substance to this film and while some of it is less subtle than other aspects, it’s all worth telling and it flows organically.  Nothing is forced, nothing is beating the audience over the head, and it all plays out very naturally.

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Mixed in with all of this is the fun science-fiction component that’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before.  It’s certainly reminiscent of the Japanese Kaiju films, but with an added element, here, and an added twist, there.  The story is pleasantly unpredictable without ever becoming gimmicky.  Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo elegantly avoids tropes and clichés, making a quirky film feel very earnest and relatable.  There are moments of lightheartedness, but I would hesitate to call it a comedy.  This is a thoughtful, well-meaning film with a point to make, and Vigalondo refuses to allow said point to get lost among a lot of extra-curricular activities or slapstick, just to get a few laughs.  If it doesn’t contribute to the film, as a whole, then it isn’t in there.  Vigalondo utilizes very efficient storytelling techniques, much to the film’s benefit.

Colossal rests firmly upon the shoulders of Hathaway and Sudeikis.  Hathaway, as always, is splendid – fully grasping the fact that acting is a subtle art form.  Truly great acting performances lie in the small moments – the fine detail – and she is a master of the little things.  The role doesn’t push her to her limits, but Gloria is a very complex character and Hathaway handles the delicate balance of her disparate and maturing personality traits with the ease of an auteur.

Playing Gloria’s childhood friend, Oscar, Jason Sudeikis gives his best performance to date, showing that he’s capable of more than just comedy.  As complex as Gloria is, Oscar is at least her equal in that regard and Sudeikis is required to go places that no other role has ever taken him.  And he excels.  He may have gotten just a little hammy at the film’s climax, but that would be the only time; otherwise, he turns in a supremely excellent performance that could very well open some doors for him, elsewhere in Hollywood.

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Speaking of the film’s climax, while I won’t speak of the events that occur, I will state that the ending is clever, natural, and very satisfying.  The more fantastic events of the film get the requisite pseudo-science explanation, and that’s all they need.  The movie isn’t about the literal monster in Seoul.  The metaphor at the heart of the film is what matters and it and the characters are extremely well-served.  I found myself completely invested in everything that was occurring during the film and surprised at nearly every turn of events, despite thinking afterwards that there were no other logical ways for the narrative to proceed.  Along the way, Vigalondo exquisitely navigates the special effects around his limited budget.  Whereas many would see that budget as a limitation, Vigalondo instead uses it to place the emphasis on the characters and make the audience feel everything through them.  The way he handles it is simply genius.   Colossal is compelling, intelligent, and heartfelt and is a must-see for any self-professed film-lover.

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Review – Colossal