Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Losin’ It; or, The Inevitable Curse of High Expectations

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 19, 2006

Yes, I know I said I would update more often. Unfortunately, we have had some technical difficulties with the site and I have been unable to for the past couple of weeks. So I’m going to try to keep this one short (yeah, right). Let’s start with a big giant “THANK YOU!!” to the fledgling CW Network. They’ll know why.

So, have people really decided to stop going to the movies, or what?

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve attended weekend matinees of two supposedly huge summer blockbuster films, Mission: Impossible 3 and Poseidon. Both of these screenings were seen by me and…about five other people. That’s virtually unheard of for such high-profile, big-budget supermega movies at my local cineplex. Yes, each film was showing on three different screens, but usually each screening for a summer blockbuster is at least half-full, especially in early May. Even movies like The Island get decent attendance out here. There were more people at the screenings I saw of supposed flops Land of the Dead and The Devil’s Rejects last summer than of these would-be “mainstream” gigantor flicks. I could almost hear crickets chirping (if it wasn’t late afternoon, that is).

What’s going on? I never really believed in the myth of “the slump” until now. Is it the economy? High gas prices? Bad reviews? Or is it simply that not that many people were interested in these particular films?

Honestly, I think it’s a combination of all of the above. Like most Hollywood executives, I’m just used to people naturally showing up for whatever the studios have to offer in the summer. Good, bad or indifferent – if it was heavily hyped, people used to just automatically buy tickets. Not any more, apparently.

It could be that audiences have finally gotten wise – I’m sure that’s the perspective that most highbrow critics would take. Maybe it takes more than a big budget, big names and lots of media hype to sell us these days. Maybe there actually has to be (gasp) content to pack in the crowds.

Nahhhh…

You want to know why The DaVinci Code is going to be gigantic? Because the studio has been shoving it down our throats for months. For what seems like forever now, I couldn’t watch TV for 10 minutes without seeing an ad. Every movie I saw for weeks had that trailer in front of it. It’s not just the bestselling novel, the ridiculous controversy (come on people…it’s fucking fiction, like all religion), the A-list star and director, although those will all be factors. But what’s going to sell tickets is the fact that it’s everywhere. You can’t get away from it. I’m surprised they didn’t hire a guy in a Revolutionary War costume to ride a horse up and down the street yelling, “The DaVinci Code is coming! The DaVinci Code is coming!!!”

Once again, it’s all about the marketing, stupid.

Having said that, I don’t know that the general public was really clamoring for another Mission: Impossible movie or a remake of The Poseidon Adventure. In retrospect, not the best openers for the summer season, at least not if you want to pack in the 12-year-olds. I could see them doing well in, say, mid-July. If there were no other major competition. But in early May, gee, why not start off with something a little more, I don’t know, current? How about the new X-Men movie – the kids still care about those, right? Maybe Pirates of the Caribbean 2? Or even Internet sensation Snakes on a Plane? Let’s face it – to today’s kids, Mission: Impossible and Poseidon aren’t brand names, they’re ancient relics from their grandparents’ era.

Of course, neither of these films were exactly a flop on the level of Basic Instinct 2. But they still performed far below expectations. The irony is that both of them were actually pretty decent films, as unnecessary sequels and disaster-movie remakes go. I don’t think I’ll remember much about either of them by the end of the year, but for early-summer action fare, I found them more than serviceable. I know, that’s not exactly high praise, but that’s about all the enthusiasm I can muster. I’d consider them three-star films as opposed to four-star films; and in my book, there’s a huge difference there.

I actually thought M:I-3 was easily the best of the series, which isn’t saying much since I didn’t particularly care for either of the previous entries. While I adore Brian DePalma and John Woo like nobody’s business, they were both out of their element here and it showed. DePalma’s film had some decent action sequences, but suffered from a notoriously convoluted storyline and an ending that betrayed the original TV series. Woo’s sequel was just kind of laughable really, a half-baked testosterone-fest with a ridiculous storyline cribbed from Hitchcock’s Notorious and acting unworthy of a junior-high play. Not to mention Woo’s tired visual trademarks, which worked wonders for Chow Yun-Fat once upon a time but had become very tiresome by the time Cruise got around to copping them. The whole film seemed to have no particular point except to stroke Cruise’s ego and show us what a badass he is. No sale. Lots of people went to see these movies, but few actually really enjoyed them.

Leave it to a “TV guy” to finally make a Mission: Impossible movie that was a decent adaptation of the TV series. Actually, J.J. Abrams isn’t just a “TV guy”, having started his career writing screenplays, and having written or co-written such varied films as Regarding Henry, Armageddon and Joy Ride. But when you work in TV and have as much success in it as he has, you get labeled that way no matter what else you’ve done (take Joss Whedon, for example). Making his feature directorial debut, Abrams and his co-writers actually crafted a movie that dealt with espionage and teamwork, like the series it was based on! For once it wasn’t just a vehicle for Cruise to act like the badass we all know he isn’t. Abrams made it personal, showing us sides of Ethan Hunt that we hadn’t seen in the previous films, yet at the same time expanded the films’ scope so that it felt like an actual spy movie, not just a half-assed star vehicle.

I remember after seeing Woo’s entry in the series, my main thought was, “who the hell is Ethan Hunt and why should we give a shit about him?” Abrams answers that question – he’s Jerry Maguire with a gun. Seriously though, at least there was some character there at all, which was a decided improvement. I actually found his romance with Michelle (Boston Public) Monaghan kinda touching and sweet, albeit in a slightly creepy Anakin-Padme sort of way. Finally the guy has something worth fighting for! At some point Cruise has to start co-starring with actresses close to his own age though, at least to avoid obvious comparisons with his offscreen life (although Monaghan looks more like Liv Tyler than Katie Holmes to me). And throwing in Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the villain was a particularly inspired choice, even if the critics don’t realize that he wasn’t “Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman” when he made the movie, he was just a working actor trying to pay his bills. Give the guy a break.

It’s ironic that Cruise gives his best Ethan Hunt performance in this one, since he’s the main reason a lot of people stayed away (especially, I’m told, fickle female audience members who’ve lost interest in him). Yes, a lot of his recent offscreen behavior has been a little squirrelly. But honestly, who gives a shit? This is the whole problem with the tabloid mentality that has pervaded this country – people care way too much about what actors do in their personal lives and not enough about what they do on screen. I couldn’t give a good god damn if Cruise worships goats and blows old men on the subway. It’s not my business, and it’s not yours either. Yeah, he’s made a public spectacle of himself, and probably has only himself to blame for it. But I honestly think it’s pretty stupid to not see a movie just because some actor is getting negative press. Unless that movie is Gigli. I don’t particularly care what Tom Cruise says and does outside of the movie screen, any more than I care what any other actor or “star” does. I don’t know the guy personally. I have no vested interest in who he marries or what religion he follows (which, as far as I can tell, is no crazier than any other). I do know his movies, and I know that he’s made an effort over the years to work with the best people in the business. That’s more important to me than any couch-jumping or anti-psychology rants. He may not be a great actor, but he’s a movie star, and he delivers on screen more often than not. Hell, name one major movie star who hasn’t pulled a boner in his/her personal life once or twice (OK, besides Tom Hanks). What does he have to do to get people back on his side, make a sex video with Pamela Anderson? That seems to be the one infraction that people are actually forgiving of anymore.

In a way, I think it’s actually a good thing that all those adoring women finally see that their matinee idol is a real person with flaws (you know, like the rest of us mere mortals).

Such a realization is long overdue. I’m not saying that people should or shouldn’t like Cruise – I’m saying they shouldn’t let whatever public image an actor has get in the way of seeing a film that they’re in. If you’re just not interested in the movie itself, OK, fine. But if you’re not seeing a movie because a guy jumped on a couch on a lame talk show and the media replayed it 17 million times, I’m sorry, that’s intellectually and spiritually retarded. You’re just depriving yourself of whatever that movie has to offer, and letting superficial bullshit get in the way of your having a good time. Whose loss is that, really?

In the case of Poseidon, while I enjoyed the movie’s old-school disaster-movie charms, I had to wonder who they thought the movie was for (other than old codgers like me). You don’t spend $150 million on a movie and not put some serious thought into every aspect of the production, including casting. I guarantee you, if Brad Pitt had starred in the movie instead of Josh Lucas, it would’ve had a $40 million opening weekend, at least. Now, I happen to like Lucas as an actor. But a leading man he isn’t. He’s not a guy who puts asses in seats, even though the studios would obviously like him to be. He could possibly become that in the future, but he’s not there yet. His best performances have been playing character-actor parts in indie films and villains in big-studio films. That’s where he excels. In this movie he’s supposed to be the “likable rogue” but he just comes off like an amoral, predatory scumbag. You need a movie star to pull that kind of part off, and Lucas just isn’t that. He hasn’t built up that kind of cred with audiences to make that transition yet, and I honestly wondered how he got top billing above people like Kurt Russell and Richard Dreyfuss (I’m old enough to remember when they were movie stars). And if WB was banking on those guys to sell tickets in 2006, I have to question their sanity.

The funny thing about Poseidon is that it’s a remake of a movie that frankly wasn’t all that good in the first place. It has a following, but more for its camp value than anything else. It’s like doing a remake of Showgirls or Plan 9 From Outer Space. I watched the original movie recently, and…whew. I try very hard not to judge older movies by modern standards, but that movie just hasn’t held up at all. From the godawful theme song “The Morning After” to that cringe-inducing know-it-all kid to the painful Shelley Winters performance (seriously, you just wish they’d left her fat ass behind in the first place) I really found it difficult to sit through. The one clever thing about the movie is the religious subtext (with Hackman as the Christ figure who “saves” his followers by leading them down the path less traveled) but that’s muted by the ongoing wave (pun intended) of sheer early-Seventies treacle that pervades the entire enterprise.

Poseidon, the adventure-less remake, probably won’t hold up any better in 34 years, but at least I was able to watch it without fighting back the urge to vomit. Wolfgang Petersen has plenty of experience filming on water (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) and one would’ve thought he would be the perfect candidate to tackle this. But somebody made the weird decision to trim the early exposition down to 15 minutes or so, breaking the longtime disaster-movie rule that one must spend at least twice that long setting up its characters before subjecting them to peril. The result is a movie that moves along mercifully quickly, yet fails to make us care whether or not anyone actually lives through it. At its best, it’s an impressive spectacle, but 90 minutes of actors crawling through enclosed spaces is enough to make anyone claustrophobic. It’s especially uninteresting when you can pretty much predict who lives and dies along the way (hint: if you’re Hispanic, consider yourself dead meat).

So why the hell did I enjoy the movie? Maybe it was the sheer old-fashioned goofiness of it all. Petersen and screenwriter Mark Protosevich try so damn hard to make it “serious” and “important” that it’s actually kind of a riot. Their attempts to update the hoary old disaster-movie clichés to the 00’s are quite hilarious at times. It’s a fun movie in spite of itself, the kind of B-movie you laugh at more than laugh with. The actors are trying their damndest to make something out of these cardboard characters, who seem to change their backstories and personalities depending on the needs of the plot (Kurt was the Mayor of New York??? Ummm…when? Better yet, why?) that you can’t help but empathize with them in a weird way. Petersen and Protosevich seem so hellbent on not following the formulas that they wind up walking right into each and every one of them. And it’s kind of a hoot. As a movie, it’s completely indefensible in just about every way, and I think that’s exactly why I liked it. Where recent disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow seem completely conscious of their clichés and even revel in them, Poseidon is the kind of dumb movie that doesn’t realize how dumb it is. You have to admire that in a perverse way. Poseidon is like the hot girl who’s as dumb as a brick, but everyone hangs on her every word, so she thinks she’s smart. You know you shouldn’t encourage her, but you just can’t help yourself.

I have no doubt that in the year 2040, people will look back on Poseidon and wonder what the hell we were thinking. All I can offer in defense is, we weren’t. Deal with it.

So, is there any hope for summer? I think so. In fact, I fully expect a little movie called Pulse to be the $100-million sleeper hit of the season. This is because it stars the beautiful, talented Kristen Bell, and…what, you need something more than that? Screw you guys.

(Psst, Weinsteins… move it NOW, before it’s too late, idiots)

That’s all for now. More reviews are on the way, and I’ll check in sooner than later (I hope).

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