Saturday, May 25, 2013

Why Do Critics Suck?

Leonard Schader
When I was a slightly younger man, Leonard Schrader was a friend of mine. We didn't hang out and smoke cigars, or go bowling or buy each other lunch, but we were most definitely friendly and conversed a lot. While most people are undoubtedly familiar with his brother Paul's cinematic resumé (writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, directing American Gigolo and Cat People), Leonard's contributions include co-developing the films The Yakuza, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, as well as adapting the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Kiss of the Spider Woman. I met Lenny when I worked at Hollywood Book and Poster, and our conversations spanned many subjects as I sold him classic lobby cards and screenplay reprints from the shop's massive archive (which he would implement in his screenwriting classes at AFI, Chapman and USC). Despite the massive age difference, we had a few things in common: we were both married to Japanese women, shared an affection for wolves and wolf-like dogs, and were more fond of silent comedies than contemporary ones. He was a friendly unassuming guy with a lot of knowledge and I learned a lot from him.

I was a fan of his writing and having noticed the long periods of absence between produced projects in his IMDB credits, asked him why his output was so minimal. He told me that the artistic freedom of the 1970s had become a corporate nightmare in the 1980s when, as a rewrite scribe, he would commonly get notes from executives to "dumb down" the material. The studio bosses at this time weren't filmmakers like the generation that preceded them. They were financiers: junk bondsmen appointed by stockholders who would just as soon invest in fudge as in film. In Leonard's estimation, these guys had about as much entitlement to critique writing as a cat had a need for pajamas. His interest in taking thankless writing assignments waned as his original pitches were routinely turned down. In actuality, he had remained quite busy though his resumé didn't reflect it. Many writers wind up pounding out numerous transitional drafts in the nebulous grey area between script inception and filmed realization. Most folks not glued to the trades just aren't aware of how much time is spent on projects that change direction, swap genre midstream or go nowhere. Development can swallow a decade or more of a writer, director, or producer's time as studios greenlight and cancel projects without shooting a single scene–with the biggest casualty often being originality.

Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer & Michael Bay
The cocaine fueled 1980s were certainly no high water mark for intelligent decisions, and major big-budget misfires helped to limit the freedom allotted to the auteurs that changed cinema in the 1970s. The decline of the mavericks coincided with the birth of the event film, and the summer blockbuster became the goal of literally every major studio in Hollywood. Over time, the heightened craft, dazzling special effects and compelling stories that made the early blockbusters successful (Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) were simplified into a formula that consisted only of special effects and marquee names, so that star-driven vehicles, sequels and remakes out-trumped the tried-and-true equation of good story + good acting = hit.

I'm not telling you anything new here. You've seen it in Easy Riders and Raging Bulls and the chronological follow-up, The Blockbuster Imperative. What drives me crazy is that so few of the theater-going public have learned anything from those films or from their own movie-hopping experience.

Eligible in 16 award categories, nominated for 1, winner of 0

Cloud Atlas was released on DVD and BluRay last week. It was a hundred million dollar, independently financed film faithfully adapted from a critically acclaimed novel featuring a cast of household names, directed by billionaire franchise creators and an arthouse god. It was an incredibly original story that tackled complicated themes in an entertaining way via powerhouse performances and stunning special effects and, of course, it flopped miserably. Apparently, the public has become accustomed to "dumbed-down" entertainment, because this was a thinking man's sci-fi adventure and audiences avoided it like the plague.

Roger Ebert
Many critics had at least a few nice things to say about the movie, but seemed more interested in predicting failure than championing quality. The first three reviews I read, which were quite lengthy, seemed completely incapable of describing the plot and left very little indication of whether they liked it or not. As with far too many syndicated review columns, the ego of the writer and the need to use interesting and uncommon verbiage trumped the actual purpose of the review: to make a case either for or against the film based on what is on screen. Instead, confused readers were treated to nit-picky non-specifics by armchair directors flexing their thesauruses in a series of paid-by-the-syllable word mills. The same critics that champion every single befuddling film from David Lynch or Werner Herzog were (incredibly) incapable of comprehending a fairly straight-forward and universal tale of the thirst for freedom, the value of integrity and the immortality of love. If only a real critic like Pauline Kael had been around to champion Cloud Atlas, it might have gained traction and then word of mouth. Even Roger Ebert (who gave the film a four star review) tap-danced around the plot and injected enough doubt in the first paragraphs of his review that it basically ensured on-the-fence film fans would skip it. What a disservice!

Of course the lack of studio support should become a case study in movie marketing failure for decades to come. Warner Brothers dropped the ball on this like they did with Iron Giant, My Dog Skip and A Little Princess. Because of the massive box office failure, Cloud Atlas has all the earmarks of becoming a legitimate cult classic, but the film's poor performance virtually insures that nobody will ever take a chance like this again. That is a pox on all of our houses, and all of you who didn't go see it on the big screen are to blame. Shame on you. It's because of you that we'll all be served Paranormal Activity Part Fuck You until the end of time. Thank you also for guaranteeing sequels to Silent Hill and Resident Evil and every other shitty video game adaptation that comes down the pike until the dead actually do rise and kill us all.

So... yes, this is a bit of an I Told You So. You screwed up by not supporting visionary filmmakers in a grand experiment, but you've got the chance to make up for it by buying the DVD, Bluray or Ultraviolet download. Add the film to your Netflix cue and request it on Red Box. When you finally do see it (and love it) post about it on facebook, twitter, instagram, tumblr, and in your blog. Cloud Atlas finally will get it's due, but please do me a favor: don't claim that you saw it on the big screen because I saved my ticket stubs and I will absolutely call bullshit on you.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

All Hail Patton Oswalt!

Patton Oswalt is the closest thing we have to a Geek Treasure.

First, he gave the single greatest improv performance on television since John Belushi was on Saturday Night Live. In his recurring role as Garth Blundin on NBC's Parks and Recreation, Patton gave the filibuster of the century in a speech that outlined his pitch for the plot of the next Star Wars movie, which features Thanos, the Avengers, and other wonderful surprises–uniting the two recently acquired Disney franchises of Marvel and Lucasfilm. This is pure comic brilliance:

And now, Mr. Oswalt has participated in a great Batman parody as The Penguin. After you see this, you'll be begging Christopher Nolan to do another film with Patton Oswalt as The Penguin.
All hail Patton Oswalt!