Style, Meet Substance

In the past couple of weeks I had the chance to view two highly anticipated and critically acclaimed movies, Baby Driver and The Big Sick. Both films were entertaining in their own distinctive way, but they highlighted what I, and many critics I think, see as the main problem with Hollywood today. Let’s dig in.

Baby Driver is a movie that sneaked up on me, in that I had never heard of it until it was practically in theaters. It was directed by Edgar Wright, known for films such as Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs the World. I personally did not care for the first two and the latter I found mildly entertaining, if only for the performances of Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and the overall oddity of the story. Baby Driver concerns a young man who is financially indebted to a career criminal and forced to drive the getaway car during bank robberies perpetrated by said criminal’s henchmen in order to satisfy this debt. It is loud, obnoxious, colorful, violent, and basically an extended music video of car chases and shootouts choreographed to a rather entertaining soundtrack. Essentially a rock and roll music video with little time to dwell on character development, it’s like much of today’s music – mindless entertainment put together in a sterile lab specifically to kick the endorphin machine in to high gear.

 

The Big Sick is a movie that I had been anticipating for some time. Written by Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon it’s the true story of how they met and fell in love. Nanjiani, a struggling standup comic in Chicago, met Gordon when she heckled him at one of his performances. An unlikely romance – a Pakistani Muslim man and a American Christian woman – ensued, with cultural issues putting pressure on the relationship. Specifically, Nanjiani’s parents were set on finding him a nice Pakistani girl to marry – an arranged marriage – and he was dead set against it but could not bear to tell his folks. That pressure ultimately led to him breaking off the relationship – no spoiler here, as the facts have been used in the marketing. Soon after, Emily came down with a life threatening illness which forced her doctors to place her in a medically induced coma for ten days or so. During that period Kumail meets, and bonds, with Emily’s parents and ultimately confronts his parent’s cultural standards, at odds with his own.

I enjoyed both movies, in different ways of course.

Baby Driver was a raucous explosion of sight and sound, barely stopping to take a breath between set pieces. The cast was great and included Ansel Elgort (various young adult movies) as the titular character along with Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Lily James and Eiza González. The guys were essentially cartoon characters and the gals were the typical hot stereotypes Hollywood can’t seem to get away from, easy on the eyes of course, but with nothing really to do but look fabulous. The movie was an example of style being put front and center – hey look at this, ain’t it cool? – at the expense of a relatable story and characters. The theater I saw it in had the sound up so loud – proud of their new state of the art system, I guess – that I was tempted to ask management to turn it down. I left the theater feeling the same way I would after eating an ice cream cone at Baskin Robbin’s. I enjoyed it but I would not be dwelling on it at length. There is always another ice cream or other treat to enjoy down the road.

The Big Sick was a poignant, emotional story about two people finding love, despite not really intending to, and overcoming illness and cultural barriers to make it work. Nanjiani was cast as himself obviously, with Zoe Kazan playing Emily. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, as Emily’s distressed parents, have never been better. Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff as Kumail’s parents and Adeel Akhtar as his brother were perfect and the culture clash was realistically portrayed. Directed by Michael Showalter, the dialogue was snappy and funny and the emotions were front and center. The film has a lot of heart and I had a lump in my throat through most of the last act. In fact, when the film ended I had to linger in the theater a bit as I had been weeping rather profusely.

Overall, the two films represented the best and the worst of Hollywood. On the one hand, a well written and acted story with emotional depth, and on the other a slick movie put together for the wow factor with little regard for anything other than the entertainment value. And the potential profits, of course. I heartily recommend both films, but if you are forced to make a choice on Saturday night go for some emotional depth. You can always have your ice cream down the road.

 

 

Bigger, Better, Faster, More

Last summer I read plenty of articles regarding the much anticipated release of the movie Suicide Squad. Let me just say up front that I have pretty much zero interest in the genre of super heroes or comic characters or whatever niche it is that encompasses these silly movies. I have seen and been mildly entertained by movies such as Ant Man and Deadpool, movies that are self aware and able to poke fun at themselves. I stay completely away from any such movie that takes itself seriously. These are, after all, comic book adaptations. I would just as soon see Archie and Jughead on the big screen. Actually I would much prefer Betty and Veronica.

Much of the press concerning Suicide Squad concerned speculation on how “true” it would be to the source, how good it would be and, most importantly, how it would do at the box office. It was a critical bomb, but that does not seem to affect the box office of these types of movies for some reason. It’s almost as if there is a sub category of criticism in the genre – the legitimate critics trash a movie and the fanboys have their own rating system. The movie went on to gross approximately $750 million on a production budget of $175 million, ultimately producing a profit of $150 million or so. Advertising and promotion costs for these types of movies many times exceed production costs. Of course, in the world of Hollywood accounting it will probably never make a profit, but that’s another story.

The movie premiered on HBO recently and I set my DVR to record it. One Saturday evening, after enjoying a bit of boxing and a few cocktails, I decided to give it a look. The film began with an introduction to the characters, a tall order considering the sheer number of them – a dozen or so, I believe. I made it through Deadshot – played by Will Smith – and Harley Quinn – Margot Robbie – before restraining myself from throwing the remote at the TV. I turned it off in disgust and thanked myself for not actually paying to see it at the box office. I didn’t give it another thought except to wonder how much of the movie was eaten up by character introduction. At the rate it was going it might have been the better part of an hour. The Dirty Dozen – in 1967 – managed to do it in about seven minutes.

It seems to me that Hollywood has lost it’s way. These days the studios are intent on spending massive amounts of money on films of little substance, basically throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. It’s a precarious business model that can really bite a studio in the ass. The Promise – starring Christian Bale (Batman) and Oscar Isaac (Star Wars) – opened last weekend with a little more than $4 million on a budget in excess of $90 million, not counting marketing and promotional costs. It is predicted to lose $80 million. Ouch!

One can only imagine the pitch meetings for these kinds of movies. If I was a studio executive I would likely bail at the first mention of a budget north of $100 million no matter how well liked the source material might be. I think I would prefer to make ten $10 million movies instead, gambling on one or two home runs instead of putting all of my eggs in one basket. Of course when they hit, like Avatar or Guardians of the Galaxy, they make big bank. Still, I don’t often read about any studios that are absolutely cleaning up and making absurd profits, Hollywood accounting practices not withstanding.

Way back in 2002 My Big Fat Greek Wedding, made on a modest $5 million budget, grossed over $368 million worldwide. It had a likeable story that people could relate to and, though it never reigned at the top of the box office during it’s theatrical run, it had legs, as they say in the business, and hung around selling tickets for some time. Of course it did not have car chases or explosions and they didn’t have to hire an army of computer nerds to generate CGI effects. In other words, it was about people and family and love and relationships. It’s as if Hollywood thinks people can’t relate to those things in the modern era. Unfortunately they are probably right. In our superficial social media driven world you almost need shiny objects and loud noises to distract people from their electronic devices.

Last week I rented Paterson, a film by Jim Jarmusch starring Adam Driver, an alum of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Driver, perhaps best known for his work in the HBO series Girls, plays a bus driver named Paterson –  in Paterson, New Jersey – who lives a rather mundane, routine life punctuated by his love of writing poetry. It’s a small movie made on a $5 million budget. Nothing exceptional happens other than a small setback; small to viewers who would expect more action, almost devastating to Driver’s character. I was profoundly affected by the film, thinking of it almost daily afterwards. It has substance, meaning, emotion. I think it is one of the best movies I have seen in years. I’m in the minority of course, because I care about these things more than any of the action packed brainless pabulum mainstream Hollywood has to offer.

I like small movies, or older movies that have become classics. I have taken to watching Turner Classic Movies and other nostalgia channels to see movies that I have never taken the time to appreciate. Just this week I saw Scarlet Street (1945) and The Fallen Idol (1948), both of which I enjoyed immensely. Other movies I have seen in the last month or so have been Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Best Years of Our Lives. I can’t believe I have never taken the time to see them up until now. Movies like these show you what Hollywood is capable of.

I realize people enjoy their popcorn movies and most do not want anything that really makes them think. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is due out soon and Avatar has multiple sequels in the works. I saw both originals and found them entertaining to an extent. Unfortunately, they didn’t give me what I really need – a story of substance and characters I could relate to and connect to on some emotional level. So enjoy your tent pole movies this summer but do try to get out and see that little sleeper that might just resonate on a human, rather than a visceral level. You might be surprised.