Friday, January 18, 2013

"Movies For Adults"

It’s a relief to get out of Oscar season, where there were a lot of strong films, but also movies made that exemplified what Hollywood really wants to do with their product. They’ve aimed a majority of mainstream films at children not because that’s where the money was, but because that’s the ideal mindset for a captive audience, one that cannot grow fickle. The best sort of audience is a captive one, and what’s the point of having a critical opinion if it’s overwhelmed by the excess of Hollywood crowd-pleasing aesthetics?

The difference between “The Avengers” and “Les Miserables” was simply that I happen to personally prefer superheroes to musical drama, but both are the sort of fresh-out-of-the-box contraptions meant to bludgeon an audience into submission. I can happily say I’ve given the film soundtrack to “Les Miserables” a good workout, and I especially like the vocals of Mr. Wolverine Jackman. But you couldn’t bribe me enough to actually sit through the movie one more time, as if there was something to gain from that experience anyway.
Regardless, the art of an actual film made for a very specific, receptive audience, adults, is back in full bloom. It’s a natural response to the overwhelming onslaught of CGI-kiddie toons and teenager-aimed caped adventures, and its boasted strong box office results, if this year’s decent batch of Oscar nominees can attest. And this really isn’t an issue of content, but it’s roughly half the battle: I’m sick of weeding through the time travel bullshit of nerd fare like “Looper” to find moral value (which in that case, I would argue is nonexistent) in an attempt to connect that film with any sentiment or idea that can be defined as a contemporary concern for our world, or even my own hermetic first world existence. So while I may not believe much of, say, “The Silver Linings Playbook,” which has a dubious third act that remained unchanged from a test screening I saw months earlier pointing to what I figured was an incomplete movie, I’m happy to see the film find mainstream acceptance, even if it’s payola on the part of the Weinsteins. Again.

Still, there’s the address of race in the general public thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s biggest film, “Django Unchained,” which conveniently also happens to be a picture of fascinating structure and undeniable visual kineticism. There’s the straightfaced drama of “Argo,” an overrated film that I was nonetheless glad was proudly, nakedly rated R, signifying that, despite its satirical elements, it was interested in playing to people who took history seriously. There’s “Lincoln,” which, broken down, is essentially a story of a bunch of white men in smoky rooms having repetitive arguments for three hours, though Tony Kushner’s script ensures these conversations are level-headed, and free of phony grandstanding (for the most part – it is still a Spielberg film). There were two nominations given to “Flight,” which deals with an addictive personality given in to alcoholism even after unspeakable tragedy. And then there’s “Life of Pi,” the children’s film. That is, of course, the children’s film about faith and religion from Academy Award winner Ang Lee. All the films in this paragraph have made $100 million or more, and “Pi” will likely finish over $500 million worldwide.

I’d like for that to continue into the new year… if the films cannot be good, at least they can reflect real world issues, anxieties and concerns. At least they can be aimed at adults, and spur conversations and debate. At least they can give you more to chew on than “The Hobbit,” which is about to make Warner Bros. another billion dollars despite not being about anything other than some dry magic shit. So I can forgive a few seasonal dumps, particularly because the early year is the most exciting period for true film junkies, especially as “summer” keeps threatening to stretch backwards into April. January is considered a “dumping” period, where studios release films that “don’t work,” but in a glass half-empty sort of way, I prefer to think of these as films that “almost” work. Either there’s one key alchemic element missing, or they’re 3/4ths of a good movie that completely fold upon themselves. Which means Allen Hughes’ “Broken City” fits just right.
Long considered a “hot” script feted by the Black List, “Broken City” shows the exploits of a p.i. who attempts to uncover the truth about the supposed infidelity of the mayor’s wife. It is my understanding, through airtight completely undeniable accurate anecdotal evidence, that writer Brian Tucker saw his acclaimed script re-written many times, and regrettably the seams show. Instead of being a riveting account of a corrupt system with sharply realized character moments, it instead feels like a screenplay stolen from James Gray’s desk, with the post-it note reading “DOESN’T WORK – JG” removed. Maybe it’s the casting – the unmistakable New England accent of Mark Wahlberg somehow feels like the most authentic miscue of this New York City-set drama, which features a tanned, George Hamilton-y Russell Crowe as mayor, with Welsh wife Catherine Zeta-Jones hob-nobbing with the opposition’s aid, the inherently Midwestern Kyle Chandler, looking like he has never read a subway map in his life.

Halfway through “Broken City” I was startled. Here’s a major studio film starring huge names that not only has a leisurely pace and not-end-of-the-world stakes, interested not only in institutional corruption but also character digressions, like Wahlberg attending the premiere of his actress girlfriend’s new movie and finding intense discomfort in watching her disrobe for another man onscreen. And then after zoning out for a good ten minutes, I asked myself, why are you thinking about the next time you have to do laundry, and when during the commute home it would be best to stop and buy milk? Maybe it’s because Hughes is the wrong choice for the material; the girlfriend’s movie, some touchy-feely crap called “Kiss Of Life,” wouldn’t even pass muster as a parody on “Entourage.” When Wahlberg has an angry reaction at the afterparty, it’s impossible to ignore that the outburst is perfectly synched to DMX’s “Party Up,” which ends at the close of the scene.

It’s likely Tucker’s original script made more sense after this point, where Wahlberg descends into a drunken haze, only to escape from his self-abuse thanks to a dramatic phone call, which spurs him to sober action moments later. Not only is his drunkenness completely surmountable, but his relationship becomes an afterthought, no further screentime given to his girlfriend, and no mention to possible Sundance sensation “Kiss Of Life.” It’s a bummer, because that phony plot strand completely overshadows the accurate, borderline primal attitude of Wahlberg’s character, who slumps in his chair at the film premiere. Anyone who has had to suffer through a mate’s vanity project with entirely too much on their own mind can relate, and it’s a perceptive bit of acting from the normally-untamed former head of the Funky Bunch. To say I liked “Broken City” because of moments like this is misleading, but I certainly appreciated it.

Similar pleasures are to be found in Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical effort, “Side Effects.” It’s best to walk into the film without knowing much, and because it’s a bit early (the film is released next month), and because I’d like to discuss it further later, I’ll tread lightly. The film begins with bloody footprints across the floor of a gorgeous Manhattan apartment, at once announcing what “Side Effects” will be, a successful melding of the erotic threat of a De Palma film and the territorial paranoia of the work of Roman Polanski. From there, the first half hour begins to share the story of a young urbanite (Rooney Mara) struggling to get through life while awaiting the release from prison of her insider-trading convict husband (Channing Tatum). He’s eager to get back out into the world to support himself and his wife, but her recurring episodes suggests not everything is right with her.
What follows is the steady hand of Steven Soderbergh twisting the narrative in ways he never has before, constantly shifting perspectives and allowing for a film in which every scene is not what it seems. Suffice to say, that first half hour takes a straight-faced examination of the perils of actual depression and the medical industry’s desire to exploit the common symptoms of everyday sufferers. I was intrigued not only by the content of this segment of the film, but also how it kept me intensely invested, depicting mental illness as a terrifying specter lingering over this girl’s life. And then, a right turn. And another. And then one more, none of which I will discuss (though I’m sure other critics will in great detail, because most of my colleagues are assholes).

Steven Soderbergh was one guy who could be counted on to make films for adults, sometimes two per year. His coming retirement has made few sadder than myself, as each of his diverse films was considered an event (perhaps a JJ post is forthcoming…). But if this trend in pictures aimed at adults continues, perhaps there is a void that can be filled. To hope for another Soderbergh is to miss the point about Soderbergh – each of his films attempted something new, each felt relevant, contemporary and immediate. Each was a film for adults. We can never have too many of those.


  1. You wanted Peter Jackson to change what "The Hobbit" was about? Or you just don't think anyone should ever adapt "The Hobbit"? As an adaptation of Tolkein's work "The Hobbit" is the best attempt so far (asides from the weird high framerate thing which, for those of us who hate 3D and were never going to see it in that format anyway, who cares?).

    "January is considered a “dumping” period, where studios release films that “don’t work,”"

    Actually that's only true in America. Here in the UK: "Les Miserables", "Django Unchained", "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Lincoln" are all being released in January. It's not so much that the month is a dumping ground, but rather that all those movies HAVE to be released in the US in time for the Oscars. Elsewhere in the world, they can be rather more relaxed in the pace at which they release them.

    Not sure I've ever thought of Soderbergh making films for adults. Sure "Traffic" was pretty serious, but it was a little more goofy than the tv series it was adapted from. There's the "Ocean's" films which are about as silly as you can get without even the intelligence of a Tarantino movie. As much as I enjoyed "The Informant" I wouldn't say that it was particularly 'adult'. The most adult Soderbergh film that comes to mind is "Contagion". What makes you think Soderbergh as a director handling more "adult" films? (I haven't seen "Magic Mike" yet btw.)

  2. Soderbergh's films have a concern for adult concepts and ideas: sometimes it's class (Magic Mike) or social issues (Traffic) or interpersonal conflict (sex, lies and videotape) or even the economy (The Girlfriend Experience). And even films like Out of Sight or the Ocean's films, or even Haywire, have stylistic ideas about representation, or genre subversion. Most importantly (and some act like this is a criticism), his films are always, even in small ways, academic.

    Meanwhile, "The Hobbit" isn't about anything, so quit pretending. Yes, I wanted Peter Jackson to change what it was about.

  3. If I wanted to give an example of a film that isn't about anything, I'd pick something like "Dogtooth". :P

    It doesn't matter to me if "The Hobbit" is reflecting real life issues or not. I judge films based on whether they are entertaining. As much as I think "Avengers Assemble" was overrated, it's not because it has no relevance to real life. It's because the second half is the same 'macguffin could end the world' plot that we've seen over and over and over again. But I still give it a lot of credit for being entertaining and for engaging me with the characters.

    "The Hobbit" is a beloved book about an ordinary person being thrown into a world of swords and sorcery. It expresses the sentiment that an ordinary homely person who is scared by change can actually become a hero a make a difference. "The Lord Of The Rings" is a long pretentious sequel to that initial book. (And oddly, Peter Jackson left out arguably the most important part of "The Lord Of The Rings" where the Hobbits are able to easily deal with the goblins who have invaded while they've been away.) It's mostly just an entertaining story, but I'd still argue that it's about a lot more than frikkin' "Ocean's Eleven".

  4. Okay, just saw your haiku with the link to the review of "Lockout". You liked Lockout! YAY! (Yeah sure, not an A or anything, obviously. But a solid B+. - And yes, Joe Gilgun is brilliant.) - Clear sign, I feel, that you don't always need your movies to be ABOUT anything, so long as they are fun.

  5. Please don't get me, or anyone else, started on "The Hobbit." It succeeds, because it is a film for children. Bringing it up in this discussion is fairly dismissive of the points I'm making.

  6. I didn't bring up "The Hobbit". You mentioned it dismissively in your article and I responded. If you didn't want it mentioned, you shouldn't have mentioned it - plain and simple.

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