I love movies. I love how a great director and great actors can take a script, which is just the skeleton of a story, and flesh it out with sets and sounds and camera movements and jump cuts to make emotions. Turning it into the warm body of a film, with strength and heart. When I was young I attended the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and worked on a degree in Screenwriting (with a minor in Cinematography), wrote a few films (and saw them produced), and learned a lot about the film-making process. Though I figured out that screenwriting was basically organizing thoughts and notes to create an outline for someone else to finish – and therefore not enough to keep me interested – I still use some of what I learned then in my writing now.
When I went to UPenn I studied mainly Art History – which is one of the best degrees for a writer in terms of teaching you about art, culture, history, and how to think – but I also got a chance to take a couple of film criticism classes. I loved them! I’ve done classes on Japanese film, both pre-WW2 and post, noir films, and adaptations, and those four classes together showed me most of what is being put back into (recycled, adapted, homage’d) modern movies. Over the years I have learned to write screenplays, see a script cinematically, and think critically about film. But the biggest thing that informs my view of film is that I have watched so many of them. I’ve even worked in movie theaters in order to have access to all the celluloid I want. This has led me to watch a lot less “Hollywood” blockbusters, because I can see the predecessors in the work. Which is to say that I’ve watched enough classic, indie, and foreign films to know all the myriad ways that Hollywood is ripping them off. Why pay to see what’s already been done, and often done better, by someone else?
I ended up only seeing one movie in theaters in all of 2011, my all time low. I saw Contagion, which was wonderful, and that was it. This had, honestly, more to do with my year than with what was available, and so I started off 2012 by renting a handful of “hit” movies that I actually had wanted to see. In the last three days I have watched the final Harry Potter film, Super 8, Captain America, Thor, and Fright Night. What did I think?
Overall, there was no reason that I had to see these movies on the big screen. I can see in some places where the effects would have been bigger and therefore bolder – which is often the only reason to see a movie in theaters – but I don’t think I missed much. Of these, Super 8 was the one I think I should have seen on a larger screen. It works without it, but I would have paid to see it and not been disappointed.
I picked these movies for reasons not having much to do with the potential for good film making (again, Super 8 was the exception). I’d seen the other HP films and read the books, and I thought the movies were good for what they are (I have huge issues with the way the novels are written, but the films work on their own and even cut out some of Rowling’s awful slapped-together world/magic rules). I’m glad I finished the set, because I like to have completed things, and there are some moving moments in the film that basically have to do with the universal ideas of banding together against a common foe and protecting children. The rest of the story falls flat, and there are plenty of moments which are meant to be emotional that aren’t given the weight or screen time they should have got. It is a fight movie, with action scenes, and a little acting in between.
Captain America and Thor I rented because I want to watch the Avengers movie this summer and I wanted to be caught up (I’ve already seen both Iron Man movies several times). Neither of them are as good as the IM films – which, to be fair, are allowed to center on Robert Downey Jr.’s acting, and he is a dynamic actor – partly because they both feature handsome blond men with big muscles who are expected to be merely pretty and strong. Neither Thor nor the Cap’n have the range of personality that Downy’s Stark has. Even Daddy Stark, as portrayed in CA for a few moments here and there, is a more interesting character than either of the two heroes. Ignoring that, because we all know the Starks are Marvel’s brilliant bad boys, Captain America and Thor are very different films from each other. Hands down, Thor is better. It’s still not great, but it’s watchable, especially in the context of introducing characters for another film. CA is … bad. It starts off well, very much in keeping with the Marvel movie set, and then – I don’t know, did they run out of time? 2/3 of the way through the movie, the Captain assembles his group of heroes, and then there’s a five minute action sequence meant to give you the impression of battles never explained or shown, and then – dramatic ending. That’s it. Smushed together. Pointless.
Thor has a slower pace, unfolds evenly, and while there are no surprises in the film, it takes you along the arc of one story and does it well. One thing I noticed is Marvel’s new and politically correct “action hero pack”, which seems to consist of a buddy/white guy, a black guy, an Asian guy, an Irish guy, and a white woman. Captain America’s ace hero team – a white guy friend from back home, a (british) white woman, an Irish guy, a black guy, and an Asian. Oh, and some French guys who basically exist so the black guy can speak French to them and thus show he’s educated, and not just stuck in the movie to be strong/black. I do like the one moment where the Irish guy shows a bit of racism and the Asian guy points out he’s from Fresno, CA, but that’s the end of that character being interesting.In Thor we have … a black guy (the gatekeeper), an Irish guy, a white woman, another white guy, and an Asian guy. C’mon, really? I love that we’re trying to show there are more people in the world than just the handsome white guys who are EVERY OTHER CHARACTER IN BOTH MOVIES, but sticking in a few minorities doesn’t actually make your film diverse unless those characters get to DO STUFF. Not just fail and have to be saved at the right moment by the oh so blond hero. Also, if there’s only one black guy and one Asian guy in Asgard, how did they get there? Where are their not-white parents, siblings? Are they dating anyone? Is their only choice the legion of white folks?
I wonder these things.
One note: I had heard criticism of both films for having woman who swoon over the hot romantic leads (aka, the heroes) as if that somehow negates the awesome parts of those women. I don’t think that’s fair, because I’ve had those moments where someone I was attracted to was standing very close and your heart races and your pheromones start interacting and you get … distracted for a moment. It happens, and it happened to those women, and then they spent the rest of the movie being strong or smart, depending on which girl we’re talking about. Given how often men men get distracted (in films) when a pretty woman walks by, it’s actually sexist to try to pretend that women don’t have the same ability to be temporarily distracted.
Super 8 was, right up until the end, pitch perfect. The story, sets, actors, all great. But this hinges on being able to recognize what story is being told here, and it isn’t’ the obvious one. Super 8 is an homage, and it’s telling the story of a train crash and an escaped alien monster, sure, but it’s also telling the story of the movies we watched and the people we were at the end of the 70s. It’s talking about the generation that grew up to create ET for kids like me. It feels like a classic film telling a classic story, getting darker and darker, crawling into desparation, until suddenly all is right with the world. I wish the end hadn’t been quite so nailed on. Maybe I’m just a little too jaded for happy endings. I would watch this one again.
Fright Night is a remake of the 80s movie of the same name, and if you’re a fan of David Tennant (aka the 10th Doctor, aka Barty Crouch Jr., aka Hamlet), this movie is for you. He doesn’t actually appear until 1/2way through and he’s a supporting character at best, but just when you start to get a bit bored at essentially re-watching a not-too-scary, not-quite-serious vampire flick we’ve all seen before, there’s Tennant to be sarcastic and cowardly and sexy and foul mouthed and wonderful. He saves the film on a couple of different levels.
I liked getting to rent a few movies and catch up on a year in Hollywood filmmaking. There are a few other films I plan to view this way when I get another batch of free time. Feel free to leave recommendations in the comments.