As 2012 dawned, there was one movie that geek culture anticipated above all others: The Dark Knight Rises. It was the trilogy-capping follow-up to, at that point, the most successful superhero movie of all time. The Dark Knight was a major cultural touchstone that, with its cracked-mirror reflection of a society ripped apart by terrorism, complex questions about surveillance, and dark neo-noir style, legitimized the idea that comic books could be fodder for serious cinematic art. And yet, when 2012 ended, its sequel had not walked off as the year’s highest-grossing film. That honor went to another superhero flick with a decidedly lighter-hearted tone, glossier visuals, and a mission statement to have popcorn fun rather than strive to be pop art: The Avengers. In fact, The Avengers not only beat The Dark Knight Rises for the No. 1 spot, it did so by a margin of about $175 million.
Now, we’re not saying that Christopher Nolan’s gritty comic-book movie revolution, nor Peter Jackson’s dirt-under-the-fingernails overhaul of fantasy, is by any means over. What is happening, though, is that audiences are starting to direct the question asked by Nolan’s most famous Batman character back on blockbuster filmmaking as a whole: Why so serious?
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After a decade of action, sci-fi, and comic book movies striving for a darker, grittier, more down-to-earth aesthetic — and filmmakers equating such qualities with being taken seriously — escapism is making a loud-and-proud comeback. Audiences are responding to movies that just want to have fun in a big way. In 2010, Alice in Wonderland, with its candy-colored visuals and cheeky Tim Burton wit, grossed $334.2 million in the U.S. alone. Later that year Disney scored its biggest non-Pixar animated hit in years with the $200 million-grossing Tangled, proving what a huge market there still is for bubbly princess fare. And while Bryan Singer’s Jacksonian “dirt under the fingernails” take on Jack and the Beanstalk with Jack the Giant Slayer failed to deliver blockbuster numbers with a tepid $27.2 million opening, early tracking for Oz the Great and Powerful, a decidedly more glossy, color-splashed fairy tale, suggests that film may take in $80 million or more during its first weekend. (It’s not a coincidence that Disney produced Alice, Tangled, Oz, and The Avengers.) The message is clear: there is an audience that wants fun for fun’s sake. Escapism is back.
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Just five years ago, "dark," "brooding," and "gritty" was the way to go if you wanted your tentpole movie to be taken seriously — and make a lot of money. The kid-friendly Fantastic Four movies tanked. Superman Returns’ shiny Americana seemed terribly unfashionable and out-of-date. Spider-Man 3 made a ton of money off the strength of its predecessors, but the fact that its sole attempt at going dark and brooding was to give Tobey Maguire some emo bangs earned the film geek derision and scorn from the same critics who praised the Sam Raimi franchise’s first two installments. The Dark Knight, though, had the ambition to transform iconic Batman villain the Joker into a terrorist spreading urban chaos. Casino Royale turned James Bond into a blunt instrument who was also vulnerable and capable of nursing a broken heart. And the Bourne movies deconstructed the panoptic dread inherent in spy fiction by serving up a title character who was a blank slate at the mercy of forces beyond his control. Bond, Bourne, and Nolan’s Batman presented heroes affected with a kind of PTSD, still tormented by past traumas and regrets, and tending toward a messianic relentlessness to make things right. And then there's The Lord of the Rings, about a legion of bathing-averse heroes suffering incredible hardship to stare down insensate evil. None of these movies featured traditionally “fun” characters or storylines, and yet they became among the most popular, crowd-pleasing entertainments of the past decade.
Try as journalists, publicists, and film scholars might, it’s impossible to disentangle directorial vision, marketing impulses, and audience demand to figure what exactly is responsible for a trend like the dark blockbusters that dominated the multiplexes for much of the past decade. The rote answer is that these films are a cinematic response to 9/11 and are in some way allegorical reflections of the uncertainty, powerlessness, and trauma of that terrible day. Suddenly, Timothy Dalton’s brutish, scowling 007, so derided by Reagan Era movie audiences, was reincarnated as Daniel Craig’s brutish, scowling 007, and post-9/11 audiences loved it.
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If blockbuster filmmaking ever since Star Wars has pivoted around two central themes — “With great power comes great responsibility” and also “He who fights monsters must take care that he doesn’t become a monster himself” — after 9/11 the latter theme seemed to preoccupy the most successful sci-fi/fantasy and superhero movie filmmakers. This has been a unique phenomenon in Hollywood history. In the 1930s, also a time of great trauma because of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, American movie audiences flocked to champagne-fizzy Astaire/Rogers musicals and kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley spectacles to escape from a harsh reality. Even in the ‘70s, the era of Vietnam and Watergate, films that held up a darkly-tinted mirror to society were personal works of auteur-driven cinema, like Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon — very different from the classical blockbuster escapism of The Godfather, The Sting, Jaws, and Star Wars. So the idea that people would go to a Batman movie like The Dark Knight to find an allegorical expression of real life fears — even catharsis for them — is unique.
But then in 2008, Marvel struck back at the darkness. Oddly enough, they gave us a character very much like Batman — a billionaire at the head of a company that makes weapons who applies his company’s tech to gadgets that transform him into a superhero. Yep, Iron Man. But unlike Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark wasn’t scarred by tragedy. In fact, you could argue that Stark only becomes a true superhero as Iron Man not when he builds the metallic suit but when he stops being an asshole and decides to use his fortune and genius for good. With Iron Man — and to some degree even more so with 2011’s Thor — Marvel offered up pop entertainment built around personalities rather than traumatic circumstances. Tony Stark and Thor struggle to overcome their natural arrogance and hubris. Then, and only then, do they truly become superheroes. In essence, Iron Man shifted comic book cinema's storytelling priority away from “He who fights monsters must take care that he doesn’t become a monster himself” back to Spider-Man’s old “With great power comes great responsibility.” That meant a lighter tone, more humor, and, not surprisingly, more color-saturated visuals.
NEXT: "Dark" and "brooding" may be cool, but lighthearted escapism — call it the Bubblegum Blockbuster — is enduringly profitable.
The “Dark Blockbuster” aesthetic was decidedly monochromatic. The Bourne Ultimatum and The Dark Knight aren’t just dark thematically, they're dark visually too. The color palette of those movies is very minimalistic — a lot of metallic blues and grays. By contrast, the post-Iron Man Marvel superhero films are bright and pop with bold, primary-colored panache. Outside of Marvel, the one-two punch of Star Trek and Avatar in 2009 also represented a stark shift in blockbuster storytelling priorities. Those were films about exploration and self-discovery more than they were about toil and strife. Sure, some terrible things happen in those movies. But they’re mostly about characters developing hidden potential while discovering new wonders. And those exploratory themes need a visual style that immediately communicates you’re in for not just a movie but an experience. So you get 3D, performance capture, heavily-CGI'd environments, and otherworldly lighting like the Thomas Kinkade glow that suffuses Avatar’s phosphorescent jungle moon Pandora.
It’s been argued that most stories in one way or another have roots charting back to The Iliad, and are about struggle and conflict, or The Odyssey, and are about discovery. Well, the latter is making a comeback with a vengeance. Movies like Iron Man, Star Trek, and Avatar are escapism in its purest form, but that doesn’t mean they're devoid of real-life issues and concerns that many, many people understand. By no means is escapism inherently mindless. It’s the mode of storytelling that’s given us a farmboy staring at his planet’s twin suns and wondering what he’s made of, or a Kansas farmgirl singing about what lies “Over the Rainbow,” and it's the basis for just about every Disney movie ever made. Those are themes everyone who’s ever grown up, or is growing up, can relate to. Even the escapism of the Astaire/Rogers musicals of the 1930s was deeply rooted in the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of the American viewing public that bought tickets.
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What we have now, to put into film industry terms, is escapism with four-quadrant appeal. Combine themes everyone can relate to with stories people are already familiar with and you’ve got box office gold. That’s why Alice in Wonderland, despite tepid reviews, still grossed a fortune. As did Tangled. And so will probably Oz the Great and Powerful. Not to mention that the decidedly kid-friendlyThe Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which is very much the Odyssey to The Lord of the Rings’ Iliad, just crossed the $1 billion worldwide box office mark. As the President of Hollywood.com Box Office Paul Dergerabedian puts it, “Simply put, these films offer something for everyone: the action fans, the date crowd, fanboys and even families can enjoy these movies on many different levels and yet not be scared away by an R-rating or a cinematic vision that is purposefully dark and gritty.”
Call it the “bubblegum blockbuster,” a type of genre-spanning Hollywood movie that’s existed for a long, long time, from The Thief of Bagdad to The Sound of Music to The Avengers. Bubblegum blockbusters are not often considered to be all that cool, per se. The Amazing Spider-Man deliberately avoided anything as silly as Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin Power Ranger mask from Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man movie. But for all the emphasis placed on The Amazing Spider-Man being a "more serious" take on the webslinging hero and all the fanboy discontent with how Raimi’s trilogy ended, which Spidey origin story ended up making more of the green stuff? Hands down Raimi’s bubblegum Spider-Man from 2002, which grossed $403 million to The Amazing Spider-Man’s $262 million.
"No question that 'darker and grittier' plays well with audiences too,” Dergerabedian adds. “One needs only look at the success of the Batman trilogy under the direction of Chris Nolan to realize this. However, unlike its darker-themed brethren, the bubblegum blockbuster has all the elements in place to make it an easier sell with general audiences and thus may provide an easier route to success." Though perhaps not conceived as a tentpole movie the way some of these other films were, Life of Pi also follows this model: strong archetypal themes, a coming-of-age hook, and eye-candy visuals. Hello, PG rating and $600 million worldwide box office. Not to mention that Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a shiny modern-day update on ‘50s monster movies, is already being positioned — like these other movies — as an adventure, a journey, and, above all, an experience, rather than a tightly-coiled drama.
Bubblegum might not be cool, but it sure is tasty...and profitable.
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt
[Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures(2)]
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There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Rock of Ages, the film adaptation of the hit Broadway period piece about the rock world of the 1980s, has released its new trailer. And maybe it's just bad timing, but it sort of reminds me a great deal of New Year's Eve. It might be a stretch, but with one presenting itself as a high-energy, upbeat tribute to an era and its music with a superstar cast, and the other presenting itself as a high-energy, upbeat tribute to a single day and its music with a superstar cast, I can't help but connect the two.
And like New Year's Eve, Rock of Ages looks to be on a quest for pure, smile-inducing, somewhat cheesy, but generally well-meaning fun. In its corner, the movie has some pretty good music to help it do that. And in this age of rampant nostalgia, I can't imagine the film won't rope in audiences who are wistful for their glory days rocking in the Reagan years, as well as those who are two young to have lived through that era...and have always regretted that.
So, if you belong to either category, here's a trailer for you. And with a cast including Tom Cruise, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alec Baldwin, Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Malin Akerman, Diego Boneta, Paul Giamatti, Mary J. Blige and Bryan Cranston, you probably won't be deterred.