Thursday, November 17, 2011

Too grownup for grownup movies? Or why the movie I'm most looking forward to this Oscar season is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

This was a bit more free association than I intended.  Do forgive me...

As of this writing, I have not yet seen Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar.  I had some free time on Monday and, faced with two new releases that were both playing around the same time, I chose Immortals in 2D.  I actually had a few opportunities to see the Leonardo DiCaprio picture prior to release, but passed each time.  Like a lot of would-be Oscar contenders that drop during this time of the year, the poorly reviewed 'good for you' picture felt less like nutritious entertainment and more like homework. The conventional wisdom is that the problem with mainstream Hollywood is that it fashions its films for the tastes of fourteen-year old boys, while adult films for adult film-goers are relegated to the art-house if they are released at all.  But my situation is a little different.  I find that as I get older I am less and less enticed by the so-called grownup films.  Faced with a choice between seeing the newest Oscar-bait film immediately upon release (or at a press screening downtown at 'pain-in-the-ass-traffic o'clock') or checking out something vaguely more escapist, the choice is harder and harder.  I used to relish the opportunity to see the so-called 'grown up movies' as soon as possible.  Now, due to obvious demands on my time, the insane time-crunch that is the year-end release schedule, and the glut of often mediocre art-house product (Gee, I sure hope that sensitive, quirky, and somewhat handsome young man overcomes his problems with the help of an out-of-his-league hottie who exists purely to make him enjoy life again), it sometimes seems more like a burden.

In my middle school, high school, and college years, I raced to the 'prestige pictures' whenever possible.  Growing up in Akron, OH, I was lucky enough to have two large multiplex literally across the street from each other.  Since there were only so many wide releases and not everything went on three screens apiece back then, the local Regal usually had one or two screens reserved for prestige pictures or artier fare.  I distinctly remember rushing out to see the likes of Affliction, Boys Don't Cry, and Croupier during their one or two week engagement at the local Regal 12 (IE - Montrose Movies).  I was the only white guy in the theater on an opening weekend Saturday afternoon showing of Spike Lee's Get on the Bus.  Sure I saw pretty much everything back in those days, but I took special pleasure in seeing the 'good' stuff.  The fifteen-year old me saw Dead Man Walking on the second day it was in wide release.  Would I today be as eager to see what is still the best film ever made about capital punishment?  I would like to think so, but...        

Part of the problem is that there are just too many movies to see around this time of year.  For reasons that still baffle me, the studios choose to unleash every single major awards contender during a 2-3 month period, rendering what should be a pleasure (seeing some of the year's best films) into a chore, a marathon of balancing screenings and before-work matinees and the like.  Maybe people would complain a bit less about how 'Movies stink these days!' if the studios actually spread out their quality product throughout the year rather than holding most of it for November and December.  Ironically, that is a problem that stems from me actually living out in LA.  Back in my younger days, I in fact didn't see many of the year-end films until they went into wide release, which was (and often is) well into the new year.  So while checking out In the Land of Blood and Honey (or Dead Man Walking) would be a treat in mid-January at my local AMC, now it remains just one more gosh-darned 'Oscar-bait' movie I have to squeeze in before the end of the year, playing only at The Arclight Hollywood and/or The Landmark (lovely theaters, but not the easiest drive).

Also adding to the fatigue is the genuine glut of product in general.  Since I live in LA, I indeed have access to everything.  So there really is no filter when it comes to separating the bad art-house films from the genuinely worthwhile independent cinema, other than my hopes that the initial critics were right (and of course blind faith when it comes to press screenings).  But in a year that has seen me loving Sucker Punch while more-or-less hating Drive and Midnight In Paris, even the critical seal of approval doesn't quite mean what it used to.  Back in Akron, something like A Better Life (which is one of the year's best films, by the way) didn't make it to a mainstream multiplex unless it was pretty terrific.  If Montrose Movies was showing Croupier in late-August 2000, then that meant that Croupier was damn-sure worth checking out.  

I have zero interest in seeing The Iron Lady or My Week with Marilyn, and my interest in Carnage stems mainly from Jodie Foster's starring role.  And while it looks interesting, I am not waiting on the edge of my seat to see Shame.  I saw Sleeping Beauty (review will drop closer to its theatrical release) mainly to compare it to Sucker Punch, and I will say that I was far more impressed at how the latter film was able to weave many of the same ideas and themes into a fantastical story featuring eye-popping action sequences.  The fact remains that many of these 'prestige pictures' just don't seem all that involving, and they offer little to entertain should their more scholarly attributes (writing, acting, direction) not resonate.  When you walk into a Jason Statham action picture, you are guaranteed a certain level of visceral entertainment.  With artier fare, it's a complete gamble.  If you stroll into The Last Days, it's a zero-sum bet.

In essence, mainstream films are the equivalent of treasury bonds.  Low risk, but generally lower reward.  Walking into Take Shelter (which I ended up loving, natch) is the equivalent of investing your money in the stock market.  The rewards are arguably greater, but you stand a chance of completely crapping out.  With my schedule, I don't have time for many crap-outs.  But the fact remains that, regardless of how the release schedule turns this game into an endurance contest, I find myself less and less intrigued by the so-called 'adult film'.  I have been married for nearly four years, engaged for a year prior to that, and basically living together six months prior to that, so I don't really need to spend time away from my wife to learn about how difficult relationships can sometimes be.  I have two children who I generally like, so I really don't need to spend time away from my kids to appreciate my family and/or better relate to my children.

It's cliche to say that general moviegoers want escapism, but there is a certain truth to that.  But it's more than about 'escaping from your problems in a world of fantasy'.  It's merely the fact that, for me at least, I don't generally need to go to the movies, especially when it means time away from work and family, to learn what one hopes would be pretty basic life lessons.  The mainstream stuff offers arguably the same morals, sometimes even going a bit deeper than they are given credit for.  Slight digression, but how many 'prestige' pictures had as much lump-in-the-throat wisdom to offer as Up?  How many 'prestige pictures' had the kind of insightful and unforgiving commentary about a generation being raised online and society's sadly still prevalent sexual double-standards as found in Easy A?    And there is no truer cinematic examination of what America turned into in the decade following 9/11 than The Dark Knight.  Should we not give equal, if not superior acknowledgment to films that can explore important ideas within the tapestry of popular entertainment?  Why should we hold Sleeping Beauty above Sucker Punch because the latter offers almost nothing but ideas?

So what to do about this?  Well, for starters, I am going to see the year-end movies I want to see, with the hopes that I can form a best/worst list that accurately reflects the year in film.  I saw The Descendants yesterday because I adore Alexander Payne and I ended up enjoying it more than any of his films since Election.  I will catch Young Adult next week because I still think Juno was a great movie.  I'm seeing the national sneak preview of We Bought a Zoo next Saturday because Almost Famous is one of my all-time favorite films and I want to see if Cameron Crowe can get at least some of his creative mojo back.  I'm seeing Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy at a press screening a week from Monday because I damn-well want to and it's apparently a great thriller filled with wonderful actors.  And I will relish taking my wife to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows about as much as I will look forward to seeing what Brad Bird can do with a live-action IMAX action picture in Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

If I don't get around to seeing J. Edgar, the world will keep spinning.  In the meantime I have to get ready for a press screening of the film I'm most anticipating this season.  It's a dramatic comedy about a group of former entertainers who try to get the old band back together for one last hurrah.  Maybe you've heard of it, it's called The Muppets.

Scott Mendelson                 


corysims said...

Bravo, Scott! Bravo! As a father of two who was exactly like yourself before the wife and kids came along, you nailed this EXACTLY! So happy I'm not alone in this feeling....

Bill said...

I found the BBC/PBS modern Sherlock Holmes better than that overblown CGI train wreck.

Scott Mendelson said...

I rather enjoyed both of them. The BBC one had better mysteries and felt more traditional, while the Guy Ritchie tale emphasized the tragic consequences of Holmes's gifts (IE - How his 'Asperger's' affected his normal life).

mucha said...

You are not alone. I moved from a smaller town to big, majored in art history and literature, saw and read all the classics (my father worked in theater, my mother in a library), started my Phd, and... I just couldn't do it. I read Jakie Collins for six months after I graduated and now I want to see Twilight (yeah, yeah, I know, but u get the point).

mucha said...


corysims said...

[bold]If a movie is good, it's good. And movies, as much as you may wish them to, don't really fit so easily into this broken dichotomy you've set up. I hope you find more time to spend with your family, but in doing so, I would hope you won't sacrifice the possibility of seeing something great for the assurance of seeing something expected.[/bold]

I don't think Scott's sacrificing anything. If anything all he's saying is because the studios stack the final four months of the year with the "so-called" good movies, it's hard, especially with a family, to get away and get up for these films....when it's the same message over and over again with these prestigious films.

If the studios followed Scott's suggestion of spreading these films out throughout the calendar year, he could have a more balanced meal of movies every year when the time comes to list the best and the worse films a year.

Like him, I wouldn't be able to see everything that comes out in the next 6 weeks. It's virtually impossible with two kids under 4. I don't want to settle for comfort cinema but sometimes, after dealings with the job, kids, and the wife, comfort cinema is just fine.

And yeah, we have the opportunity to check out these films early next year when they hit home video or rental when the time comes but that becomes a problem too when other films get released and you start pushing films on the back burner and all of a sudden you look up and it's been a year or two since you get around to a film that was a prestige movie from holiday season '11 that you had a vague interest in....

corysims said...

Scott, follow up question. What's your policy of amassing a film library at your home with the kids and all? This has been my major problem this year with the addition of my second child earlier this year. I've been trying to sort out my feelings on how to go about collecting movies with family obligations taking my time away from a hobby I enjoy greatly.

The appeal of amassing a huge library has lost it's luster because of time and physical space to hold all these discs....

What do you do?

Kyle Leaman said...

A nice thought-provoking read Scott. I enjoyed reading how the changes in your life have effected your film viewing. Although I don't have the family that you do, as my life has gotten dramatically busier as a full-time minister, I too have found myself having a hard time watching those 'I'm supposed to watch this because it's a prestige adult film' films that come out in droves this time of year. I also agree that 'Sherlock Holmes' is a special pleasure. I think it's one of the few big budget popular films that are actually being marketed to adults. Adult (not raunchy, but more mature) humor, adult storyline, adult action and no fart-poop jokes!

Nathan Donarum said...

I don't think the only point of this post is to say, "studios should spread out their 'prestige pictures' across the year," as that was only one of many points made. Moreover, Scott doesn't seem to be very interested in those movies, so his suggestion of spreading them out over the whole year seems counterintuitive given his apparent aversion to such types of films (at least in theory).

I think the larger problem with your point though, is this idea of somehow needing to see all the prestige movies before the end of the year. Why? Why do you need to? Firstly, if you're like Scott, why see them at all, given how risky they are? So-called "prestige" pics are not the only movies playing at the end of the year. If you feel compelled to go see every single one of them within a short time frame, that's your problem, not the studio's. If you feel compelled to see them before the Oscars, that's your problem, not the Academy's. The movies will be around later for you to see. Is seeing them on the big screen a plus? Certainly. But given what seems to me to be a frustration with, and rejection of, such movies, it somewhat confuses me why the crammed schedule would even be a problem. Just don't see them? Wait until you have more time? Until it's less expensive? There are plenty of options, it seems to me.

In the grand scheme of things, film doesn't have a time limit of "being part of the conversation." Otherwise, why would I watch Kurosawa's great films, which were made long ago? Or Stanley Kubrick's? In the end, it's never "too late" to be a part of that conversation. If putting a couple movies on the back burner is your biggest complaint about when certain movies are released, then I really wonder how you find the time to see any of the great movies released outside of the current year. Unless you just don't?

In the end, this single point is minuscule in comparison to the larger one I was making.

Maxwell H said...

The main reason the studios release all of these "good films" over the final quarter of the year is because the Oscars have a short memory. Besides the rare film that is so powerful it is remembered 8 months later, even if a great film comes out in early parts of the year (such as The Ghost Writer last year) it is completely forgotten. This is simply the way the entire industry has shifted.

But I don't think this is the main point of Scott's piece. I may be reading wrong into this, but he is making two points: (1) it is hard to see everything that is released at the end of the year, but the more important point, and the one Nathan is pointing at is that (2) because there is so much I would rather see the studio films vs. the art films in cinemas. On the one hand if Scott had backed this up by saying that big budget films benefit more from a theatrical setting, I could perhaps get behind this point. The holidays are a busy time and we all indeed do need to pick and choose. But what bugs me, and what I suspect bugged Nathan too, is that Scott is effectively blatantly saying that he often thinks the studio films are better and more emotionally resonant than the art films. Is he entitled to this opinion? Of course. But it comes off to me as very close minded and one that essentially shuns the notion of art in film. I think there is a balance to be struck between art and entertainment. Do I plan to see Mission Impossible 4? Absolutely. It looks like a blast. But I also think Shame looks like a challenging and intelligent film that will be a nice counter balance to the Twilights and Alvin and the Chipmunks that will be in the multiplexes this holiday season. While I do agree there is often much merit to be found in studio films (I love all 3 that Scott points out in his piece), I go to films because I want to be challenged intellectually, and because I want to be surprised. I do not find going to see films like Shame or My Week With Marilyn a chore. I find it a delight. I think Scott may have clouded his point (or at least the one corysims is saying he made) with counter-points that suggest that studio films are often better partially because you know what to expect going in and partially because they are easier to palate.

Furthermore, the notion that he doesn't need to see adult films about struggling relationships, etc. is particularly troubling, and I think Nathan explained why exceedingly well. I won't elaborate on it further.

corysims said...

I wouldn't say Scott's notion is that the studio films are more emotionally resonant than the art films. I think, with his daily life as it's structured, he gets more out of the studio films that balance the art and the commercial...because you do get the entertainment value out of the studio film than the art film.

There are plenty of art films that I've seen and own on home video that I find entertaining. But, not very often. Sucker Punch, as Scott pointed out, is a prime example of this. A complex narrative and character study dripping with commentary that's also complex visually and provides serious entertainment value in the present and in the future.

I know Sucker Punch has been the punching bag for a lot of film lovers this year but you can't deny the artistry in Snyder's film on multiple levels. And at the end of it all, it's ridiculous entertaining.

Maxwell H said...

I find many art films to have just as much entertainment value as the studio films, and often more so because they are coupled with intelligence. It works both ways.

Drive has been described as an art film but I found it to be as fun (read: entertaining) and smart as any film I've seen this year. Midnight in Paris is also an "art film" that I found incredibly delightful and romantic, elements that many studio films try to achieve.

This year in terms of studio films I absolutely loved the final Potter film because it coupled the rousing adventure and entertainment alongside a beautiful story of a young man finally reaching maturity and coming to terms with his mortality, as well as a surprisingly potent and heartbreaking tale of friendship and love. I also quite enjoyed Captain America simply because it was just plain fun but I never felt insulted by it.

As for Sucker Punch? The less said the better.

corysims said...

And see, I'm the exact opposite. The more said about Sucker Punch, the better. The less said about Drive, the better.

Totally agree with you on the final Potter and Captain America...especially the final Potter.

As of today, here's my top films of the year:

Deathly Hallows Part 2
Sucker Punch Extended Cut
13 Assassins

As you can see, I try to mix it up as much as I can. And I'm sure Scott tries to as well.

In all honesty, the "prestigious" films left this year don't hold the interest for me this year as they've done in the past and maybe that's the issue here and not Scott's take on it. This year just feels tame.

A prime example of this is J. Edgar. I worship at the alter that is Eastwood but his last few films, including J. Edgar, feel like he's chasing the trophy and I'd just rather he tell a good story. J. Edgar, as much as I like American history, feels like all the films at this point of the year, feel.

With what's left this year, I'm down for Fincher's Tattoo, both Spielberg films, the 4M's with Elizabeth Olsen, Mission 4, Sherlock, and Shame.

Nathan Donarum said...

What do "all the films at this point of the year" feel like? Because they don't all feel the same to me. And this is where this problematic dichotomy comes in. I highly recommend not seeing movies through the lens of "mainstream" vs. "art films" and rather just take them film by film for what they are individually.

Scott Mendelson said...

I don't disagree with everything you said, and this was just the sort of feedback I wanted, be it good or ill. The paragraphs you mention were almost cut from the essay because I was afraid it would distract from the rest, perhaps I was correct in that prior analysis.

corysims said...

Yeah, individually they are all different. The problem is that stacking them at the end of the year gives them the aura that they're the important films to if to say that the films from January to August don't really mean anything...and I have a problem with that.

The whole season from September to December feels like "if you're any hardcore cinema fan, this is when the real movie season starts" which is total bull because there are some real gems, either mainstream or art that get released all through out the year that get no consideration, because they were released during the "mainstream" time of the year.

Shutter Island was a prime example two years ago. Released in February, forgotten in a few months, got no play during awards season (if I remember) and it was better than half the films that got all the play during that Oscar season.

Scott Mendelson said...

Wow... I appreciated the extensive feedback that this essay has generated, even if it's not all positive (as I mentioned at the top, it was more free association with some perhaps unfinished thoughts that I wanted to toss out). Ironically the parts I'm getting the most slack from (comparing 'arthouse' films to 'commercial' films) comes from the paragraphs that I almost cut at the last minute, because I wasn't sure how articulate it read (perhaps I was right). I will be participating below after I finish my Muppets review.

Scott Mendelson said...

I did not mean to imply that all mainstream films are better than all art-house films, although I can see how it might have read as such. I just get annoyed around this time of year at how the awards race boils down to a specific set of films that are deemed 'appropriate' regardless of their merit (Nine, The Reader, An Education, etc). while equally good (if not often superior) films that either come out too early (like Chris Cooper's wonderful turn in the terrific thriller Breach back in 2007) or are considered 'popular entertainment' (Dark Knight, Casino Royale, Bridesmaids, etc) aren't even in the conversation. What I meant, and this is something I've said before (more coherently) is that I think there is equal, if not greater value, in a film succeeding as an exploration of character and ideas even while existing in the realm of mainstream studio filmmaking, with all the restrictions that are technically imposed and/or the juggling act of special effects, large production values, etc.

Scott Mendelson said...

On this we agree. I bought not a single new release DVD/Blu Ray in all of 2010 that wasn't intended for the family. I was sent a few that I otherwise might have bought (Avatar Special Edition, Inception), but I only bought kids stuff and a few catalogue titles. I've bought more new movies this year because it's been a better year for movies that I might want to watch a few times (I bought Captain America, X-Men: First Class, and Bridesmaids). But the whole 'space' thing has changed my attitude. When Harry Potter 8 came out, I plunged down $70 to buy the 8-film collection Blu Ray set because it had all the films, with most of the previous extras in one compact box that was smaller than just one of those Ultimate Edition boxes. I've been slowly donating various DVDs/Blu Rays to the library as I realize that I barely have time to watch my favorite movies twice, let alone 5-10 times. I will certainly be buying Kung Fu Panda 2 and will eventually buy Puss In Boots when it is released. But for someone who used to buy an unholy amount of titles, the last few years have been a real comedown. It's a classic example of "If I knew then what I know now...".

Scott Mendelson said...

Glad I'm not the only one. It's funny, whenever I bring up Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, I have to make a point to state that I also like the BBC version, just like how politicians always have to offset any criticism of the Iraq/Afghanistan war with a token "Oh, but the troops are doing a MAGNIFICENT JOB!'

corysims said...

"If I knew then what I know now..."

So true. I've been trying to cut loose of more and more of my Blu Ray's (even the ones I truly love) for over the last 13 months. It's been a struggle because I don't know when I'll have that urge to watch something I haven't watched, in say, 2 years and look up and realize I don't have it anymore.

Your Potter example is great because I sprung for the six Ultimate Editions that are out now but I've been thinking long and hard about whether or not it was worth it. Because, at the end of the day, all that's important with Potter is the films and not so much the extras. But, with the announcement of the Definitive Collection next holiday season, there's the tease of extended editions for all of the films and I just don't want to miss out on those. Otherwise, I think I would've sprung for the 8-film collection as you. Hell, I still may.

I will say there has been one development that has changed my thoughts on amassing a nice collection and that's digital downloads. For the longest time, I was all about picture/audio quality. Now, not so much. As long as I can watch the movie, I'm okay. Of course, the big stuff (Godfather, Star Wars, Potter) I want the absolute best. But, like the Marvel Studios' films, I just own digital copies of those because of the threat of how long this Marvel Cinematic Universe could go on for and I just don't want 30 interconnected Marvel movies sitting on the shelf.

With ripping my old DVDs and purchases from iTunes, my digital library is great and because it's relegated to a harddrive, I don't feel like I'm taking up space. It's refreshing, even if I'm still careful with what I purchase. And, I've been renting more and more.

I wish I held the mantra like my wife, who sees films once and she's completely done with them...except for four or five exceptions.

Maxwell H said...

The issue with the stacking is purely the evolution of the system, unfortunately. I agree on Shutter Island last year, and as I also mentioned The Ghost Writer, which came out the same weekend. Both films were very strong and deserved awards attention but were all but forgotten come the end of the year. The studios stack the films that they deem of a high quality so they can garner awards attention and turn that attention into higher box office receipts and more clout for their titles.

I'm not sure if there is a way to fix this. The few times over the past few years worthy films have been released early on they have been ignored. Looking back in history, Silence of the Lambs was a February release but that film hit the zeitgeist in the way few films do. Gladiator was a summer (May, I believe) release as well but also had huge box office to back up its quality, much like Inception last year.

Maxwell H said...

For the most part I agree with all of the films you are looking forward to, although I saw Martha Marcy May Marlene and did not care for it, and I did not like the first Sherlock so am "meh" on this one. I much prefer the BBC adaptation of the character. I await all of the others with great anticipation. I would also add The Artist and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to my list.

As for Melancholia? Phenomenal film. Glad to see others love it as much as I do.

My top 5 of the year so far:
The Descendants
Deathly Hallows Part 2
Margin Call

Sucker Punch I just could not appreciate in any way.

Maxwell H said...

I personally try to see all of the "prestige pictures" before the end of the year because I like to participate in internet discussion and I admittedly follow the Oscar race fairly closely, despite also realizing what a load of bollocks it is. I am also at a point in my life where despite having a steady job and living with my girlfriend, I have plenty of free time on the weekends and nights after work when I'm not exhausted to see all the films I want. Living in NYC opens me up to a wide variety of titles that I get to choose from.

Maxwell H said...

I agree with this notion in many ways; I always appreciate a big budget film that is able to achieve in ideas and emotion while also balancing the action/effects/production value elements, however on a comparative scale I find it is the rare blockbuster that does that, where as I find more smaller films or art films or prestige films (whatever you want to call them) are usually more likely to be successful in these elements. These films can be just as bad (or worse) than the big budget films, though, there's no doubt about that. Just this year I absolutely hated Take Shelter (do not get the appeal) and found both Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Ides of March hopelessly mediocre.

corysims said...

Margin Call was in my top ten...until I recently saw Hesher.

And yes, Melancholia is phenomenal. Hope and pray Kirsten Dunst gets a nomination and possibly a win. She's unreal.


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