Friday, August 28, 2009

The Mehness of the Fall Movie Lineup, and What It Might Mean

No doubt about it, fall is my favorite time of year. Not just because of the cooler temperatures and crisper air, but because as a long-time student, I've always associated fall with the beginning of a new year - new opportunities, a fresh start - and a long-overdue resurgence of the arts scene. I'm no longer a student, but I still love the feeling of shaking off the summer doldrums and looking forward to the new seasons for orchestras, theater companies, dance companies, and my favorite TV shows. Above all, I love the return of intelligent movies for grown-ups, after a summer of mostly bang, boom, fart and f--k, interspersed with a handful of "chick flicks" of varying and largely unremarkable quality.

Of course, summer isn't over yet, and in fact this year there were a number of more cerebral, well-reviewed summer offerings, many of which I still have yet to see: e.g., "The Hurt Locker," "Ponyo," "Cold Souls," "In the Loop," "It Might Get Loud," and "District 9." (Though it says something, I think, that most of these movies were not on my radar at the beginning of the summer.)

But if Entertainment Weekly's Fall Movie Preview issue is any indicator, this may be the first fall in memory that I'm approaching feeling positively ho-hum. As always, I'm sure that excellent, as yet unheralded films - particularly in the independent and foreign genres - will sneak in and that some of these may end up garnering the attention they deserve. What I'm talking about, however, is the dearth of mainstream movies that pique my interest. In fact, I think there are really only two I'm actively anticipating right now: Spike Jonze's dreamy-looking "Where the Wild Things Are," and the bleakly post-apocalyptic "The Road," based on the Cormac McCarthy novel and starring Viggo Mortensen.

To be fair, there are some other films I'll see if the reviews are good. Like "Nine," another glitzy musical-turned-movie by "Chicago" director Rob Marshall, with a bedazzling cast that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, and, um, Fergie. Or "Bright Star," Jane Campion's take on the romance between poet John Keats and his beloved Fanny Brawne. Or Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!" (though the premise doesn't much interest me), or George Clooney's "Up in the Air" (ditto), or "Avatar," James Cameron's much-ballyhooed return to directing (though I think I was more interested before I saw the trailer). And then there are those that I feel like I should be interested in but just ain't, e.g., Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones and Guy Ritchie's reinvention of Sherlock Holmes as a brawny Robert Downey, Jr. Oh yeah, and Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart. No thanks. All in all, slim pickings, at least from my subjective, middlebrow Hollywood-centered point of view.

What happened? Could just be an off year. Or, more portentously, it could be the first fall season to reflect a general movement by the studios away from the kind of movies I tend to want to see. The reason? Those movies - glossy, smart, well-made studio productions like "Duplicity" or nearly every movie Russell Crowe's been in recently - don't make money, esp. when compared with the astronomical take of blockbuster franchise flicks like "Transformers" or the high profit margins of shoestring-budget indie or borderline-indie hits like "Juno." This development has gotten plenty of attention already in the media, a recent example being an article in the Washington Post (never known to be ahead of the curve on entertainment trends) with the telling headline, "Rating High on Hollywood's List: Immature Audiences":

[O]nly two types of movies -- big-budget blockbusters or poverty-row strivers -- seem to be making profits these days. The middle range of high-end, relatively sophisticated movies made with glossy production values and well-paid stars might do well with critics and some filmgoers but, between star salaries and the high costs of marketing, fail to earn their keep. And many observers worry that this will influence Hollywood's decisions about which projects to greenlight.

Note: These aren't movies described as "quirky" in their newspaper ads. Nor are they "gritty," "edgy," "offbeat" or "groundbreaking." These are movies that are simply smart, well-made and directed at filmgoers with discerning but not necessarily adventurous tastes.

A few weeks earlier, A.O. Scott had a more nuanced but considerably sharper take on the forces shaping Hollywood's product line. Describing a growing dominance of what he labels "spoon-fed cinema," he excoriates what he perceives to be the studios' increasing infantilization of their audiences, which ends up becoming a horrible self-perpetuating phenomenon. What he doesn't address is the fact that the fall tradition of "serious," heavyweight movies, admittedly fueled largely by the studios' insatiable hunger for Oscar, have by and large resisted this trend. What worries me is that this tradition, too, may finally be succumbing, or at least eroding, in response to the collapsing bottom line.

Perhaps I shouldn't worry. Shrinking profits or no, I'll be very surprised if Hollywood completely loses its yen for Oscar or its penchant for transferring critically acclaimed novels to the screen, even if blockbusters like Harry Potter or the Twilight series are the ones that make bank. But this fall's meager lineup, together with the Academy's decision to nominate ten films per year for Best Picture (supposedly, so the theory goes, to make room for commercial juggernauts like last year's "The Dark Knight"), really makes me wonder if we're ultimately condemned to a dual world of cineplexes overflowing with glorified product placement, talking CG-enhanced rodents, potty humor, and histrionic Michael Bay action sequences on the one hand, and on the other, little arthouse theaters filled with hand-held digital films about self-consciously quirky characters carefully examining their navels. Plus the occasional low-budget horror flick, a genre that never seems to die.

Or maybe not - something tells me that's an oversimplification, and moviemaking and moviegoing tastes will continue to develop in ways we can't possibly predict at this stage. But one thing seems fairly certain: the days of old-school Hollywood prestige projects are numbered.


On a different note, I was delighted to see that A.O. Scott's "Critic's Pick" video this week highlighted "Gattaca," a 1997 futuristic sci-fi film in which an Everyman protagonist (Ethan Hawke) attempts to make his way in a rigidly stratified society where the people at the top are genetically engineered, and "natural" people like him are the peons. That's a terrible description, but I'm too tired to elaborate on it. Just trust me (and A.O. Scott): this is a damn good movie. I've always thought it was severely underrated. I saw (and reviewed) it for my college newspaper, and remember coming away distinctly impressed. The general critical reaction, however, was mixed to cool, and the commercial reception cooler still. More than ten years out, it deserves to be reevaluated.


Blogger Monster Paperbag said...

Also excited about The Road. The book is really good. I hope the movie is, too.

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