August 30, 2013

Grappling with the Remake

Back in 2007, when this blog wasn’t yet a blog, but just a small mailing list of friends I would occasionally pester with movie-themed rants or punishingly detailed Oscar commentary, I vented a frustration about Hollywood’s unending parade of remakes. It’s a common enough complaint among movie geeks, to the point that ranting about it has grown a tad boring. Well…get ready to be bored.

That 2007 piece, which was eventually transferred to this blog for the reading pleasure of future generations, was inspired by news that John Carpenter’s Escape from New York was about to go under the remake knife. I had little good to say about the man sloppily wielding the blade: producer Neal Moritz, a stain on the landscape of contemporary cinema. Six years later, the remake train rolls ever on, and although Moritz’s planned Escape from New York hackjob never came to pass, the 1981 cult classic was on Hollywood’s lips again earlier this year, newly targeted for remaking…or to use a term that has gained credence since my initial piece, rebooting. Well, I’ve wanted to reboot this topic for a while, and recently there was a piece of news that prompted me to get on with it. But I’ll come back to that.

I concede that I have a knee-jerk reaction every time I hear about the latest remake plan, regardless of whether I’ve even seen the original film or have any affection for it. My immediate response is to get annoyed and defensive, bemoan Hollywood’s lack of originality, blah blah blah. But if I move past that initial irritation, I would admit a few truths. First, remakes — like sequels, comic books, popular novels, TV shows, etc. — enable studios to traffic in recognizable properties that have built-in fan bases. Hollywood is increasingly wary of rolling the dice on original ideas, especially big budget original ideas like Pacific Rim or Elysium, so with each passing year the studios cling more desperately to known quantities that feel safe and seem more likely to pay off. I’m not saying I like it, but that’s the reality of the business, and it’s a reality that is entirely indifferent to how people like me feel about it. Second, each project should be considered on its own merits. Hating the idea on principle doesn’t change the fact that some movies are good candidates for remaking. Third — and admitting this makes me feel dirty because of that whole principle thing — there are obviously a lot of remakes that are pretty goddamn great. The more exceptions you can make for an argument, the weaker that argument becomes, so it’s hard to completely rail against remakes when they include some of the great movies of all time. The Wizard of Oz was originally made as a silent movie in 1925. Charlton Heston’s Ben-Hur was also remade from a 1925 original. The Maltese Falcon was made as a low-budget picture ten years before the Humphrey Bogart version came along. And I only learned about a year ago that Some Like it Hot was a remake of a 1935 French film called Fanfare of Love. Contemporary classics like The Thing, Scarface, The Fly and Cape Fear are all worthy remakes. So the trend can’t be dismissed outright.

At the risk of descending too deep down the rabbit hole, a few of the movies I just named raise additional points that should be mentioned, and the first requires dialing the discussion back a century. In two recent posts — Movie Mixtape #1 and A New Breed of Sequel — I referenced a book called The Genius of the System, by UT Austin film professor Thomas Schatz. This is a book about the rise and fall of the Hollywood Studio System, which I read for a film class in college. I read it again recently because I knew I wanted to write some posts about sequels, remakes and other Hollywood habits that we tend to treat as current or recent developments, but are in fact practices that have been a part of Hollywood from the beginning. So drawing on Schatz’s book, here are a few facts. Even during the silent film era, studios remade their earlier films. And once sound was introduced, there was yet another opportunity to cash in on familiar titles by making versions with sound. Not only were such 1930’s classics as The Prisoner of Zenda and Gold Diggers of 1933 examples of talkies that were remade from silent films, but they were remakes of silent films that had already been remade at least once before the 30’s versions that are considered definitive. In fact, Gold Diggers was based on a play to begin with, making it not only a third remake, but an adaptation of previously existing material. The version preceding the 1933 release came out four years earlier. Anyone who rolled their eyes about last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man rebooting that franchise a mere five years after Spider-Man 3 (and that includes me) might be strangely comforted to know that this has been going on for nearly 100 years. Remember Gus Van Sant’s head-scratching 1998 remake of Psycho, in which he recreated Hitchcock’s original classic shot for shot? Also not a first. When David O. Selznick put Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman under contract, he introduced her to American audiences with the film Intermezzo, a remake of her Swedish film from a few years earlier. But not just a remake. Selznick’s Intermezzo retained the original film’s lighting, camera angles, framing, blocking…everything. It was as close to an exact reproduction as director Gregory Ratoff could manage.

Whoever said lack of originality was exclusive to today’s studio executives?

The other point to mention, stemming from my examples of good remakes, is my personal allowance that I’m generally okay with American (or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “English language”) remakes of foreign language films. Yes, I would prefer that more Americans would see movies in their native language, but we know that’s not happening anytime soon. Even I could do much better on that front. Most American audiences appear to live in mortal fear of subtitles, and will not expose themselves to foreign films. Given that reality, a well-mounted English-language remake seems like fair game to me in order to get a good story across. If the translation doesn’t work, then yes, you wind up with something that is not only a bad or mediocre movie on its own, but a bastardization of a more successful original (for example, the Nicolas Cage-Meg Ryan romantic drama City of Angels, adapted from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire…although that film is partially in English). But you might wind up with a second classic, like The Magnificent Seven (based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai), or if not a classic exactly, then a respectable interpretation, like Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris, Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage or Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia.

(Full disclosure: my American-remake-of-foreign-film exception could well be nothing more than a way to justify my deep and intense love for The Departed — based on the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs — which absolutely goes in the contemporary classic category.)

So whether I like it or not, I need to adjust my attitude somewhat about the whole remake machine. Like with sequels, the solution is not to abandon remakes altogether, but for the studios to consider more carefully what movies to remake and what movies to leave the hell alone. Which brings me to the recent news that prompted me to return to this topic. A long-in-development remake of Poltergeist is moving forward, likely shooting this fall, and actors Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell have signed on to play the lead roles originated by JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson. It’s salt on the wound when actors I love agree to take part in these examples of cinematic sacrilege. I know, I know; actors gotta eat too. DeWitt is an in-demand working actress, but she probably lacks the clout to pick and choose any project she wants. I’m sure that sometimes she has to take what fits her schedule at any given time in order to keep working. On the other hand, I’d be surprised if Rockwell doesn’t have the freedom to be more choosy, so his involvement is especially bothersome. In my perfect world, good actors would refuse to participate in remakes that are bad ideas, and so the projects would flame out.

And remaking Poltergeist is a bad idea. The 1982 original, produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg, remains perfectly effective – scary, creepy, exciting and emotionally rich. Even the visual effects still look great. The remake is being produced by Sam Raimi, written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Gil Kenan, an Oscar nominee for the 2006 animated feature Monster House. Do any of them actually think they can make a better movie than the original? Lindsay-Abaire says he loves the film and hopes to pay it tribute. That’s nice and all, but movies aren’t cheap. Millions of dollars will be spent to make this movie that has already been made and doesn’t stand to gain from being made again. So why bother? Among the many reasons to let the original stand is that it featured actors who had a specific presence that can’t be duplicated. Heather O’Rourke’s Carol Anne isn’t just a generic movie kid; she is the vocal and physical embodiment of some of modern cinema’s most iconic imagery and dialogue. And then there’s Zelda Rubenstein, the diminutive actress who played the psychic Tangina. Rubenstein was a one-of-a-kind personality who added immeasurably to the tone and mood of the film. Who’s going to compete with her? No attempt at a new version of Poltergeist can be anything more than a nostalgia grab and perhaps an excuse to push the envelope of frightening imagery. Even if I’m wrong, and they can make a good movie that has some value, can they make a better one than the 1982 version? I seriously doubt it. And that should be the launching point for any attempt at a remake. Can we do this better than it was done before?

My previous write-up included a list of 70’s and 80’s movies that I feared were in danger of being remade, and Poltergeist was one of them. In the six years since writing that piece, several of those titles have indeed been revisited, or at least targeted. The Karate Kid and Footloose have made it to the screen so far, while Carrie is due out in October. Police Academy, WarGames, and The Cannonball Run are in various stages of development. A Vacation remake/reboot was all set to go earlier this year, with Ed Helms as a grown Rusty Griswold, taking his own brood on a trip. (Because who wouldn’t want to expose their family to the kind of disastrous misadventures that forever scarred their childhood?) Christina Applegate was set to play Rusty’s wife, but the movie was put on hold due to creative differences between the studio and the filmmakers over whether to maintain the R-rated tone of the original or aim for a more inclusive PG-13. But again, here’s a case where the original should be left alone. Vacation remains a classic comedy that is no less funny for anyone watching today than it was for audiences in 1983. A new version would probably be a little more PC and, depending on which way the rating goes, a little more tame in the language and nudity departments. But I’ll bet it won’t be funnier.

The Carrie remake is a tougher call. On one hand, Brian De Palma’s 1976 original is a classic, and with its chilling third act, Oscar-nominated performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, and rich subtext that has provided film theory classes with fodder for over three decades, many probably consider it untouchable. On the other hand, I watched it recently for the first time in years, and it does feel dated in some ways. Much of it is shot through a sort of soft-lens, dreamy haze – a deliberate aesthetic that De Palma was going for to serve his vision for the material, but one that runs the risk of feeling cheesy to newcomers looking at the movie for pure entertainment value. The style might not be an issue for budding film enthusiasts who are open-minded enough to appreciate films as artifacts of the time in which they were made (in other words, the kind of people who might first see Carrie in a college film class). But new generations of viewers who just want the pleasure of a good horror movie might have a hard time connecting with it, even though there is still plenty about it that holds up (Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s fanatical mother, for example, remains potent.) With Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, the remake has two strong actresses to fill Spacek and Laurie’s shoes, plus Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Pierce could potentially bring an interesting new gender perspective to this female-centric story. So while my early thoughts were, “How dare they remake Carrie!,” the truth is that as remakes go, this one is arguably ripe for a new approach.

Still, if the new Carrie works, it will be among a minority of remakes that do. Other movies that weren’t on my 2007 list but have been remade in recent years include Fright Night, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Clash of the Titans, Red Dawn, Arthur and Conan the Barbarian – none of which needed to be remade. We’ve even entered the era of 90’s reboots with last year’s Total Recall (another Neal Moritz prize, another unnecessary revisitation). Of these movies, Clash of the Titans is the only one that did decent box office, but how many people really loved it? Or even liked it enough to keep it in their personal home viewing rotation? How many of these have taken root in the soil of pop culture? Nothing in the CGI-heavy Titans remake is as memorable or affecting as Ray Harryhausen’s frightening Medusa from the cheesy but charming original. When people talk about Arthur, they’ll be talking about the Dudley Moore version, not Russell Brand’s. When they think of Conan, they think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, not Jason Momoa. When they think of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger, they think of Robert Englund, not Jackie Earle Haley (another actor who, like Rosemarie DeWitt and Sam Rockwell, should know better). When they think of Fright Night…well, I’m not sure anybody really ever thinks of Fright Night, but I bet those who do are children of the 80’s, and therefore think of the original.

In fact, Fright Night represents another problem with the remake machine. If the idea is that studios remake older movies from their back catalogs because there is built-in recognition, why do they remake so many movies that have so little relevance to contemporary audiences? A title like Fright Night probably meant nothing to most young viewers who would be the typical audience for that kind of movie. As for older audiences who remember the original with affection, are there enough of them to justify the investment of time and money in doing a remake that offers few differences from the original other than better production values? It’s a bit of a Catch-22. Studios target remakes to exploit recognizable properties, yet if the property remains recognizable, it’s likely because the original stands the test of time, thereby making the remake a pointless corruption. If the title isn’t recognizable to newer audiences, then where is the value in remaking it to begin with?

We see this over and over again. Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman, is considered an important work within the director’s oeuvre, but it was not particularly successful at the box office. So who exactly was the target audience for the 2011 remake starring James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard? What was to be gained by remaking that movie? It had no resonance with today’s audience, and apparently made little effort to distinguish itself or bring something new to the concept. Gavin Polone, producer of such fare as Gilmore Girls and Zombieland, penned an anti-remake article for Vulture in which he pointed out that the 2011 Straw Dogs did not credit the novel on which Peckinpah’s film was based, but instead credited the original film as the basis for the new screenplay, suggesting there were minimal differences between the two. He also cites the 2006 remake of the classic horror film The Omen, which gave screenplay credit to the original’s writer, David Seltzer…even though he didn’t work on the new film at all. When the 2011 remake of Arthur opened to lousy box office, Entertainment Weekly‘s critic Owen Gleiberman wrote a piece questioning the attempt to make a movie star out of Russell Brand. Near the beginning of that essay, he says, “It’s not just that the $12.5 million it made was significantly below the $18 million that had been predicted. It’s that the $18 million ‘expectation’ was itself a rather pathetic lowball figure, at least for a project that had the nostalgic pedigree, the built-in audience affection, and the ’80s-update curiosity factor that Arthur did.”

The whole idea of Hollywood’s obsession with remakes is that they are an easy and reliable source of income. But Gleiberman is right. If the best a studio could expect for an opening weekend gross was $18 million, then the obsession needs to be seriously reconsidered. Surely the projection was based on how the finished film was tracking; perhaps the studio had higher expectations when they greenlit the project months earlier. Still…how high could their expectations for a remake of Arthur (or of Fright Night or Straw Dogs) really have been? If the hopes are that the title will appeal more to fans of the original than to a new audience, then the insistence on remakes seems even more misguided. Columbia Pictures president Doug Belgrad told The Hollywood Reporter last year in regards to remakes that “…young people don’t know the original, older people have a nostalgia for it….” Yes. Young people don’t know the original, so where is the value in the title? And older people’s nostalgia is for the original, so why would they want to see a remake?  Maybe if a piece of material has truly outstanding potential to both connect with modern audiences and be superior to the original, it would make sense to proceed. But it doesn’t seem like the executives making these decisions are lending any serious thought to why a given movie should be revisited. They just see an old title and say, “Hey, it’s been 20 years since that came out. Let’s make it again!

Not that the entire remake machine is driven by the studios. Plenty of remakes come to pass because a producer, director or actor has an attachment to an older film and wants to bring it to a new audience (and has the clout to do it). I’m generally leery of this argument, as I think that anyone who has that much affection for a certain piece of work should respect it enough to leave it be. When Peter Jackson remade King Kong, I let it slide because he was coming off Lord of the Rings; if he wanted to make a snuff film, I probably would have been cool with it. Plus, I agreed with his argument that contemporary audiences and young viewers don’t want to watch old black and white movies – another fact that I’m not saying I like; just that it’s largely true. It’s kind of the same exception as the one for foreign films, though I’m less inclined to support remaking great old movies just because they’re old. The original King Kong still packs a punch today. I watched it for the first time on the big screen a couple of years before Jackson’s remake, and I was shocked, for example, at how violent the fights between Kong and the dinosaurs were. At one point, the giant ape kills an attacking beast by gruesomely prying back its jaws. And while the creature effects are primitive by today’s standards, there’s still something magical about them. Part of the joy of watching the movie was imagining how shocking and exciting it must have been to audiences in 1933.

Still, Jackson’s drive to remake King Kong was motivated by genuine passion and love, as opposed to cashing in on a title. I wish the same could be said for Neal Moritz, who I mentioned at the beginning…and at length in my previous post on this topic. Fucking Neal Moritz. When he renewed his production company’s deal with Columbia Pictures in 2011, Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal said, “He has a terrific taste for stories that excite the imagination of audiences everywhere,” while Columbia’s Belgrad said, “He knows what audiences want.” That must explain the complete lack of interest audiences everywhere had in his 2013 films Jack the Giant Slayer and R.I.P.D., as well as last year’s Total Recall remake that nobody gave a shit about (and which lacked all the fun and personality of the Schwarzenegger original). Luckily for him, his commitment to churning out Fast and the Furious sequels keeps his bank account full and his industry standing intact. But really, the only respectable projects he’s been connected to in the last couple of years are the surprisingly enjoyable Jonah Hill/Channing Tatum TV adaptation 21 Jump Street (which is getting a sequel, of course) and the recently wrapped Showtime series The Big C, with Laura Linney. Those titles go on a short list of quality pieces Moritz has delivered over the years…a list that should be much longer when you take into account how much work he’s put out. (His company is called Original Film, which I would assume has to be a deliberate use of irony considering that nearly everything he does is a shitty, bland interpretation of existing material, except that I don’t think Moritz is clever enough to name his company ironically.)

While Moritz may be one of Hollywood’s most egregious examples of creative bankruptcy, he’s far from alone. Michael Bay has a production company called Platinum Dunes which is dedicated to making low-budget horror movies, but which prefers to remake existing ones rather than exert the effort to develop new ideas. Of the ten films Platinum Dunes has released since its first in 2003, seven have been based on previous movies, including genre classics Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Amityville Horror and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Only three have managed to gross over $100 million worldwide, and just barely at that. But because they were made so inexpensively, they all turned a tidy profit, so I guess there’s no incentive to create something new. At one point, they were developing a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, about which company partner Brad Fuller said, “We certainly come to [the project] with trepidation because of how important [the original] film is. But we’re going to see if there’s a great way to tell that story.” At the time, I suspected the quote continued, “Once we realize there isn’t, we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway.” But for whatever reason, it doesn’t appear to be on their development slate any longer. Don’t worry, though…NBC recently announced they’re going to remake it as a primetime miniseries. I’m sure that will manage to erase all memories of Roman Polanski’s 1968 classic. Platinum Dunes, meanwhile, seems to be branching out to produce non-horror projects, but not necessarily more original ones. Their relaunch of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is coming next year.

It’s easy to dump on Michael Bay and Neal Moritz, but even great filmmakers aren’t immune to the forgettable or inferior remake. The Coen Brothers struck gold with True Grit, but they struck out when they tried to redo The Ladykillers. Among the less heralded work on Steven Spielberg’s filmography is 1989’s Always, a remake of the Spencer Tracy drama A Guy Named Joe. Sydney Pollack dared to mess with Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (sorry, but Julia Ormand is no Audrey Hepburn), while Sidney Lumet had a late career misfire with his take on John Cassavetes’ Gloria. I recall being outraged when Jonathan Demme remade The Manchurian Candidate in 2004, but I’m not sure what was worse: the offense of remaking such a brilliant movie, or the fact that the remake was apparently pretty good, earning favorable reviews and even BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for Meryl Streep. Despite the positive reaction and presence of actors like Streep, Denzel Washington and Liev Schrieber, I still refuse to watch it. However the results turn out, I’m not quite sure why smart and talented directors like these would choose to spend their time mucking with someone else’s movie. Demme’s Manchurian Candidate seems to be the only one that actually tried to adapt its predecessor in an interesting way, yet with such a sensational original, it may also be the most blasphemous of these examples. So if it sounds like I’m saying that a filmmaker’s passion justifies a remake, I’m not. I don’t know whether the movies mentioned here were initiated by the directors or by the studios, but just because a good director loves an older film and wants to remake it for a new audience doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Even excellent filmmakers can easily get lost in their own nostalgic notions of paying tribute, too blinded by their reverence to see that they are suffocating the thing they purport to love.

Another problem with the culture of remakes, especially when the original movies are fairly recent, is the lack of respect to the filmmakers — usually still alive, and often still actively working — who made the movie in the first place. Maybe they find it flattering that someone would want to take their movie and try it again, and indeed, some even actively encourage it. Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, for example, produced this year’s remake of their influential cult classic Evil Dead. Go ahead and argue that Raimi’s barely budgeted original stood to benefit from better makeup and special effects. I counter that the whole reason Evil Dead remains popular is because it was marked by Raimi’s ingenuity as a director. He used the lack of funds to his advantage, and that prowling, trampling camera and the cheesy effects are exactly what lifted the movie above its simple premise and lent it a sense of fun and even charm, of which the remake seems entirely bereft. In fact, last year’s The Cabin in the Woods was almost an Evil Dead remake in spirit, following the same basic premise but then doing something incredibly fun and original with it. The new Evil Dead had no such creativity up its sleeve, serving no purpose other than delivering its scares in a slicker package and increasing the gore factor tenfold.

But who cares about a creative purpose when there’s money to be made.

Not all filmmakers share Raimi’s attitude toward their material being rebooted, but few have any power to prevent it, as the rights belong with the studios. (Though I’d bet that if Steven Spielberg wanted to stop Poltergeist from being remade, one phone call is all it would take.) Two years ago, there was an announcement that Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and their Departed screenwriter William Monahan were remaking a 1974 James Caan movie called The Gambler. The original was written by James Toback, who learned about the new version along with the rest of the world, when the news was published on Deadline. He had not been approached by any of the principal filmmakers or by anyone at Paramount, and though legally none of them had any reason to discuss the remake with Toback, he was surprised and offended that no one had bothered to ask for his blessing. In a lengthy reaction piece which Deadline published a couple of days after the announcement, Toback — an old school Hollywood Man’s Man — recounted how the original movie came together, explaining that it was a highly personal and autobiographical story. He writes that although the movie was widely acclaimed, it is largely forgotten, having been released with little attention during a period of leadership transition at the studio. Who knows if this remake will even happen. Movies gets announced all the time and then never materialize. There hasn’t been any news on the project in a year, and those latest reports stated that Scorsese was no longer involved and that Todd Phillips might direct. (That sounds smart. The guy who directed Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and GoodFellas has moved on, so let’s get the guy who directed The Hangover, Road Trip and Due Date.) I wonder how Toback would have felt about his movie being remade even if the players had courted his blessing. In the end he would have no say one way or other, but considering how personal the movie is for him, and how mishandled it was in the first place, I can’t imagine he’d have been pleased with the idea.

But who cares about respecting artists when there’s money to be made.

I’m not remotely foolish enough to think Hollywood’s reliance on existing titles is going to change, but a little wishful thinking can be the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. My wish is that studios could find a way of getting audiences to see older movies instead of spending millions of dollars remaking them, less successfully in most cases. What if popular directors or actors — people like Christopher Nolan or Robert Downey Jr. — could be enticed to make a short film, which would be shown in front of an older movie, along with a brief interview in which they discuss the movie and why they love it? If the movie is old enough that it feels too far removed in tone, mood or style from what today’s audiences are used to, then someone like Nolan (or Scorsese or Fincher or Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson or so many others) could help illuminate its place in film history, its significance, and how it paved the way for contemporary movies that are more in an audience’s comfort zone.

Why not ask Disney, Pixar, Warner Brothers, and other animation companies to produce new shorts that could also be shown in advance of the feature presentation? Or acquire existing shorts from independent animators whose work is never seen by wide audiences? (Those Oscar nominated Best Animated Shorts that no one has ever heard of are coming from somewhere.) The studios could re-release deserving movies surrounded by all of this new content that, taken together, would create a fresh experience (not to mention providing more bang for your buck, considering how expensive it has become to have a night out at the movies). The returns would be smaller, but the investment would be too, and there will still be plenty of money to make from other tent-pole movies that have become the studios’ bread and butter.

Even if older movies could actually get this kind of lavish treatment, it wouldn’t mean the end of remakes, but it might mean that studios could start being more selective with the targeted titles. I said earlier that the guiding question when considering a remake should be, “Can we do this better than it was done before?” But maybe I should amend that to say that it’s not a matter of better, but of whether a new version can genuinely offer something interesting that the original didn’t have. The problem is that in most cases, the filmmakers convince themselves — and then try to convince audiences — that they can. But rarely is that the case. One reason that Scorsese’s Cape Fear stands out as a success is that he gave the victimized family a more fractured and complex dynamic than societal norms allowed in 1962, the year of the original film. By placing flawed, complicated characters into the situation which the original film presented, Scorsese added a moral ambiguity to the story that justified revisting it, and distinguished itself successfully. If more remakes were approached with the same thoughtfulness, perhaps there would be a weeding out process resulting in fewer of them, and those that we got would be better. Remakes shouldn’t be made because studios see dollar signs in an older title, or merely because an old title is sitting around. They should be made because a filmmaker with a vision sees a genuinely creative opportunity to deliver a fresh take on a familiar story. And even then it should be done sparingly. Remakes, like sequels, have always been part of the Hollywood tradition, and that’s not going to change. What needs to change is the lack of thought, care and artistic integrity that results in an ever-growing pile of rotten reboots, reimaginings, and revamps.

Coming Soon: A look at some remakes currently in development, with an assessment of how bad an idea each one is.

August 24, 2013

Holy Questionable Career Decision, Batman!

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 7:00 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Well, wrong suit, but close enough.

Since Thursday evening, the internet — nay, the whole of Planet Earth, and possibly galaxies beyond — have been abuzz with the news that Batman’s cape and cowl, last donned by Christian Bale, will be taken up by Ben Affleck when the Dark Knight returns to the big screen in 2015’s sequel to this summer’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel. A sequel to a reboot of another character’s series? Those of you who don’t follow these things might find all of this too confusing. So let me take you back about a month.

It’s Saturday, July 20th, day three of Comic-Con 2013, and the San Diego Convention Center’s famed Hall H is awash in the stale, pungent stench that can only result when 6,000+ geeks pack into a large, windowless room, surging with adrenaline and not daring to exit for food or bathroom breaks during or even between panels, for fear that they might lose their seat or miss a major reveal. A reveal, for example, like the one made during that day’s Warner Bros. panel by Man of Steel director Zack Snyder, who teased the crowd with news that in the next Superman film, the hero would square off against the Caped Crusader.

I know that fanboys were creaming themselves at this news — an ejaculation of collective excitement that surely wasn’t helping the air quality in Hall H — but I have to say as someone who was never a comic book reader, I don’t really get the appeal of Superman vs. Batman. I know there is a long history of these two meeting up in the pages of DC Comics — sometimes as friends, sometimes as enemies — and I can see the attraction of having them fight side by side. But why do I want to see them fight each other? They’re both heroes, even if far apart ideologically. From what I understand, the source of conflict between the two — when it exists — is that Batman sees Superman as a boy scout whose vision (aside from being laser) is black and white in a word of grey, while Superman rejects Batman’s M.O. of revenge-fueled, vigilante justice. Maybe the past stories of antagonism between the two always give eventual way to a coming together against a common enemy. I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t read the comics. But it does seem clear that pitting the two against each other in the upcoming movie is meant to be more than just a brief skirmish before they eventually join up (think Iron Man, Thor and Captain America pummeling each other in a scene from The Avengers). I’ll tell you one thing: if this clash of the titans is anything like the never-ending battles between Superman and Zod in Man of Steel, you can wake me when it’s over.

The Comic-Con announcement was made using a passage of dialogue from Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder introduced Man of Steel actor Harry Lennix to read a brief snippet of dialogue from that book, and those familiar with Miller’s story knew what it meant. Those who didn’t got the picture a moment later when the Superman logo appeared on the screen, encased after a few seconds by the Batman logo. Snyder added that the currently untitled follow-up to Man of Steel would not necessarily be adapted from The Dark Knight Returns, but that the dialogue Lennix read represented the gist of what the filmmakers intended for the next installment. The decision to bring Batman into the Man of Steel sequel seemed to me like Warner Bros. and Snyder lacked confidence that their new Superman could support his own franchise. Before even giving him a chance to thrive on his own, he’s being paired with another iconic protagonist. But maybe the studio and DC are just in a rush to compete with Marvel’s Avengers success by building toward an already announced Justice League movie.

So that’s the background, which returns us to Thursday evening and the announcement that Ben Affleck will be playing Batman in the new movie. Even the Comic-Con bombshell caused less of a shockwave than word of Affleck’s casting. I’m not sure last November’s news that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and would be making new Star Wars movies generated as much fevered chatter as this has. Some are fine with the choice. More appear to be indifferent. Most are outraged, and seem to think that this casting is a crime worthy of trial at Nuremberg.

Me, I’m just surprised. I can’t figure out why Affleck would be interested in such a move at this moment in his career. To understand why it puzzles me, let’s jump back in time again. After Good Will Hunting, Affleck and Matt Damon were Hollywood’s new golden boys. The following year, they each played supporting roles in prestige projects that competed for the Best Picture Oscar (Damon in Saving Private Ryan, Affleck in Shakespeare in Love). They also reunited on-screen in 1999 for pal Kevin Smith’s Dogma. But by and large, those next several years after Good Will Hunting were marked by forgettable movies from Affleck. Boiler Room struck a chord, and Changing Lanes was pretty good, but these were bright spots amidst a spate of bland studio fare and would-be blockbusters that included Pearl Harbor, Reindeer Games, Daredevil (another comic book character, this one from Marvel’s stable), Paycheck, Jersey Girl, The Sum of All Fears, Surviving Christmas and the dreaded Gigli. High profile romances with Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t help his falling public persona, and by 2004 Affleck was both punchline and punching bag (as this example shows).

So he smartly withdrew from the public eye for a couple of years. He married good girl Jennifer Garner, started a family, and re-emerged with a supporting role in the 2006 drama Hollywoodland, earning praise for his performance as George Reeves, star of TV’s Adventures of Superman. But it was the following year that Affleck really silenced the naysayers, impressing critics and audiences with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. Anyone who dismissed his success behind the camera as a fluke was proven wrong by his follow-up, the extremely well-received heist drama The Town. And then came Argo, which swept through the 2012 award season with multiple wins for Best Director and Best Picture (including an Oscar for the latter). As Affleck’s directing career has ascended, he’s worked less frequently as an actor (outside of his own movies), being more selective about the movies he’s chosen to appear in, and balancing lead roles with supporting.

So here he is, director of the reigning Best Picture winner, reigning Best Director recipient from the Director’s Guild of America, back on top of the Hollywood food chain, no longer hunting for goodwill. He’s settled on his next directing gig — an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Live By Night — and has accepted the male lead in David Fincher’s adaptation of the Gillian Flynn bestseller Gone Girl. With things going so well, I can’t see the upside for him in taking on the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a sequel to Man of Steel.

Accepting his Best Director award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts earlier this year, Affleck poignantly spoke of being given a second act by the film industry. He echoed that sentiment when accepting Argo‘s Oscar for Best Picture. So why now, when his directing career is on fire, would he step back into the kind of commercial product that brought his career to a screeching halt in the first place? Man of Steel‘s reviews were pretty evenly split between positive and negative, and although audiences have turned it into a $200 million-plus hit, opinions seem just as divided. (I was disappointed, though the problems I had might not necessarily be an issue with the sequel.) I mention the critical and box office reception to point out that as blockbusters go, jumping onto the next Superman movie is hardly a career killer. It just isn’t something Affleck needs right now, and seems like a distraction from continuing on his post Argo trajectory.

Did he do it for money? Maybe, but come on…a guy like Affleck doesn’t have to make a move like this solely for financial reasons, and I would think that continuing to capitalize on his directing heat would be more appealing than donning spandex and cashing a many zeroed check. Did he do it to strengthen his business relationship with Warner Bros., possibly gaining the cache to direct a less commercial project down the line that might otherwise face an uphill battle to secure funding? It’s been done before. Whether it’s acting in a big studio movie and then a small indie, or acting in a big studio movie and then directing a small passion project, the one-for-them, one-for-me mentality goes back to John Cassavetes appearing in movies like The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, if not further. But Affleck’s movies as a director have been profitable for Warner, and well received by audiences and critics. While not blockbusters, his movies are solidly commercial, so unless he’s eyeing something particularly obscure, I can’t imagine he’d have trouble getting bankrolled any time soon.

It’s more understandable that Warner would want Affleck. His strongest relationship at the studio over these past few years has been with Jeff Robinov, who was president of Warner Bros. Picture Group until studio politics led to his recent departure. Robinov had a reputation as a filmmaker’s champion, enjoying close relationships with people like Affleck, Baz Luhrmann (both of whom commented on his situation as it was unfolding), Christopher Nolan, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Their loyalty to Robinov leaves future collaborations with Warner Bros. uncertain, so it’s no surprise that the studio courted Affleck to take on a cornerstone role like Batman. He’s already been given first shot at directing many of their projects in development, including — apropos of this new development — the eventual Justice League movie, a job which Affleck turned down. But he will make Live By Night for Warner, and he was apparently planning to write and direct the studio’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic, The Stand. (Less than 24 hours after announcing Affleck would play Batman, Warner revealed that The Stand would shift to Scott Cooper, director of the Jeff Bridges Oscar winner Crazy Heart and this December’s highly anticipated Out of the Furnace. I hope any plans for The Stand involve more than one film, because even a three-and-a-half hour running time won’t do justice to that tome…but that’s another discussion.)

By securing Affleck for a prominent role in a major franchise, the Warner Bros. leadership can show Affleck that they are committed to the relationship. In the announcement, studio exec Greg Silverman said, “We knew we needed an extraordinary actor to take on one of DC Comics’ most enduringly popular Super Heroes, and Ben Affleck certainly fits that bill, and then some. His outstanding career is a testament to his talent and we know he and Zack will bring new dimension to the duality of this character.” Sue Kroll, Warner Bros. Pictures’ president of worldwide marketing and international distribution, added, “We are so thrilled that Ben is continuing Warner Bros.’ remarkable legacy with the character of Batman. He is a tremendously gifted actor who will make this role his own in this already much-anticipated pairing of these two beloved heroes.” Clearly, the studio wants to stay in the Ben Affleck business.

In addition, the studio will no doubt want to spin the Man of Steel sequel off into the next series of Batman films. The clock is ticking on rebooting that franchise now that the Nolan/Bale trilogy is done. After all, studios seem to think that audiences will lose all interest in a franchise if it isn’t relaunched within five years of the previous version – see Hulk, Spiderman, and Superman himself. Does that mean Affleck is committing to carrying on the Batman role in multiple movies, including Justice League? (Maybe they’re hoping he will change his mind about directing that DC answer to The Avengers.) Nothing has been officially announced beyond the Man of Steel sequel, but sources say that Affleck’s deal does include more than one time up at bat. I always take “sources” with a grain of salt, but in this case I’m inclined to believe it. Why would Warner cast Affleck as Batman if they didn’t intend for him to stick around?

That’s another reason that Affleck’s decision puzzles me. Let’s assume Warner Bros. will want him for at least three standalone Batman movies, plus Justice League. That means he’s looking at a long-term commitment that might prevent him from accepting more logical acting roles in between his directing gigs. By logical, I mean acting for great directors he could observe for his own developing method. The late, great Sydney Pollack used to say that even after years of directing, he would still take acting roles in films by the likes of Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick in order to observe them in action. That’s exactly what Affleck should be doing. His decision to star for Fincher in Gone Girl makes sense, as did taking the lead in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. But what is he going to learn from Zack Snyder? How to fetishize tormented, provocatively attired girls?  (That’s not fair; I’ve never seen Sucker Punch. The trailer pummeled me into a brutal migraine, and I worried the full movie might kill me.)

After working so hard to rebuild his image, Affleck has put himself right back in moviegoers’ crosshairs by accepting the role of Batman. As I said earlier, the reaction amongst fans seems to be primarily vitriolic. If opinions are in fact more evenly split, it’s the dissenters that are making the most noise, as is usually the case. Petitions calling for Affleck’s removal from the project garnered thousands of signatures within a day of the news. Then again, these over-the-top reactions are nothing new when it comes to casting an iconic character, particularly in this franchise. When Christopher Nolan told the world that Heath Ledger would be playing The Joker, fans were skeptical at best, incensed at worst. Check out the graphic embedded here, showing various online responses to the news. I would love to see what all those people had to say once they finally saw Ledger take a wrecking ball to their concerns with his spectacular performance. And let’s not forget the response when Tim Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman back in the 80’s. The internet didn’t exist yet to document the disbelief and disappointment, but word got around nonetheless. Then the movie came out, and Keaton’s performance was roundly applauded. So Affleck may yet have the angry mob eating its words. I hope so. I would love to see him prove them all wrong. I’m more interested in why he would play Batman than I am in whether he can. I don’t know if he has the right stuff for the character. I do know that statements like the ones made by Warner execs Silverman and Kroll, calling him an “extraordinary” and “tremendously gifted” actor, don’t quite hold up to scrutiny. Affleck has a twinkle in his eye and a charm that serves him well in roles with a comedic bent, as well as a penchant for quiet weariness that suited his self-directed work in The Town and Argo. But let’s not pretend his acting gifts are broad and varied. He doesn’t have the range or subtlety of his buddy Damon. That weariness I mention could absolutely work for Batman, while the playfulness could befit Bruce Wayne. I suppose it all depends on how Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer choose to present the character.

Even if Affleck is rejected in the role once people actually see it, I’m confident his credibility will survive thanks to his proven track record as a director. He’ll bounce back relatively unscathed in the long run. But why open himself up to the abuse in the first place? He’s been making the most of the second act that he spoke of in the BAFTA speech above, and this move just doesn’t seem in keeping with that revival. Just like after Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck is once again a golden boy in Hollywood. I’m not sure why he wants to go down this road, but I’m rooting for him to stay golden.

July 15, 2013

A New Breed of Sequel

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 6:00 pm
Tags: , , ,

When I was in eighth grade, I wrote an article for the school paper about what seemed like an oversaturation of sequels. I don’t remember the specifics all that well, but my memory is that it may have been less an article than a list of all the sequels that had recently come out or were in the works. Given the era, that list would have included movies like Caddyshack II, Big Top Pee-Wee, Cocoon: The Return, Ghostbusters II, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future Part II and Lethal Weapon 2. These were the early days of my single-minded movie fandom, so I might have thought that what felt like an increase in the number of follow-ups was something new. But I soon learned that sequels have been a part of the movie landscape nearly as long as there have been movies.

Those of us who criticize Hollywood’s incurable case of Sequelitis tend to talk about it as though it’s a symptom of the blockbuster era that began in the early 1970’s. Au contraire, cinephiles. In 1916, Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote and directed what is acknowledged as the first sequel, The Fall of a Nation. It was a follow-up to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 hit “The Birth of a Nation,” which was adapted from a novel by Dixon. Though the sequel was a commercial failure, the early studio moguls learned that there was easy money to be made by satisfying the public’s craving for beloved characters. Warner Brothers put out 19 Rin Tin Tin pictures in a seven-year span during the 1920’s. In 1937, MGM released A Family Affair, which was originally conceived as a courtroom drama about a small town judge named Hardy. His family life was a minor part of the story, but studio head Louis B. Meyer was seeking a showcase for child star Mickey Rooney, so the story was retooled to focus more on the judge’s home life, allowing for Rooney’s role as son Andy Hardy to be expanded. When A Family Affair—particularly Rooney’s Andy—struck a chord with audiences, MGM quickly built a series around the character, dedicating a complete production unit to making Andy Hardy pictures. According to The Genius of the System, a book by film professor Thomas Schatz about the early years of the Hollywood studio system, when the second movie started to shoot, the writers set to work on the third, and the Seitz Unit (named for the films’ director George B. Seitz) “turned out Hardy pictures virtually nonstop for two years, averaging about one every three months.” Other popular characters also had series built around them, with rapidly produced sequels flooding theaters. During the 30’s and 40’s, MGM made six Tarzan movies and six Thin Man installments. In the 1950s, Universal Pictures made nine movies starring the characters Ma and Pa Kettle.

Looks like Disney’s plan to release a new Star Wars movie every two years has some precedence.

So this sequel thing is not a phenomenon unique to post 1960’s Hollywood. And I’m not here to knock it. From The Godfather Part II to The Empire Strikes Back to Aliens to Toy Story 3, and many in between, some of my favorite movies are sequels…and I’m hardly alone. But I’ve noticed a mutation in the Sequelitis virus over the last year or so. It’s no surprise when massive financial hits like Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers continue to spawn follow-ups. They made gobsmacking amounts of money, so sequels remain inevitable. But now we’re starting to see sequels to movies that are only modest financial hits, and that didn’t particularly grab hold of the pop culture consciousness. Just this weekend, we had Grown Ups 2. The original film, released in 2010, cost $80 million to make and grossed about $162 million domestic, and another $109 million in foreign markets. So it performed well and turned a nice profit. But by today’s standards, neither that gross nor the profit are all that noteworthy, and it’s not like the movie or the characters took root in the hearts and minds of the world’s moviegoers. I’m sure the movie has many fans, but it didn’t introduce us to the next Jack Sparrow, Austin Powers or Ron Burgundy. Adam Sandler is pretty much always Adam Sandler, and you don’t hear people talk about Grown Ups the way they talk about Billy Madison or The Wedding Singer. Yet Grown Ups 2 is the actor’s first sequel.

This coming weekend, Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Mary-Lousie Parker return in the action comedy RED 2. I really enjoyed the 2010 original, which cost $58 million to make and earned $90 million in the U.S. and $108 million in other countries. Perhaps I’ll enjoy this one too. But was it necessary? Again, we’re not talking about staggering grosses, stunning profits or unforgettable characters. Why does this movie merit a sequel? Grown Ups 2 and RED 2 are just the beginning of what appears to be a new trend of making sequels to movies that, even more so than usual, don’t really need sequels. Here are six others in development:

Title Budget Domestic Gross Foreign Gross Total Gross
Safe House (2012) $85 million $126 million $81 million $208 million
Salt (2010) $110 million $118 million $175 million $293 million
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010) $36 million $50 million $14 million $64 million
Bad Teacher (2011) $20 million $100 million $118 million $218 million
Dolphin Tale (2011) $37 million $72 million $23 million $95 million
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012) $10 million $46 million $90 million $136 million

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 and Dolphin Tale 2 appear to be the only ones that are definitely happening as of now, but even if the others never make it into production, the fact that they are being developed at all remains somewhat puzzling. Some of these movies were huge hits on DVD, which can sometimes justify investing in a follow-up. I mentioned Austin Powers and Ron Burgundy earlier, and both of those characters’ initial films were bigger hits on video than they were in theaters. But once viewers caught on and discovered Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, both movies gained strong footholds in pop culture. None of the movies on this chart, nor Grown Ups or RED, have taken on any such traction as pop culture currency.

The success of Grown Ups 2 this weekend could be seen as a sign that, yes, the sequel was justified and that people had a legitimate interest in these characters. I’m inclined to think that the movie’s $42.5 million weekend speaks more to the general idea of people wanting to see Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade and Kevin James together…something that could have been accomplished with an entirely new premise. Using a modestly successful, forgettable comedy as the springboard to reunite a group of actors who play well together is a hallmark of Hollywood laziness. And in a typically competitive summer movie season like this one, I suspect Grown Ups 2—while still ending up a respectable success for Sandler and company—will see its fortunes sink fairly quickly. So in a posh office somewhere at Columbia Pictures, I’m sure Grown Ups 3 is being seriously discussed today.

I’ll be curious to see if this trend continues. Hopefully it isn’t paving the way for the next step: sequels to movies that weren’t hits and that nobody liked. Case in point: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which opened earlier this year to lousy reviews and lousy U.S. box office, but which did decent business overseas. Decent enough to make Paramount Pictures think that a sequel is worth pursuing. I can’t imagine the studio would be able to get Jeremy Renner back on board (he couldn’t have been less enthused when he was forced to promote the original, as Vulture points out). I’m not sure they could get Gemma Arterton back either, and she has less clout than Renner. More importantly though, I don’t think they could get much of an audience. Hopefully that hard truth will dawn on somebody at Paramount before this punchline-in-waiting gets greenlit. I’m not enthused that we’re getting yet another Pirates of the Caribbean movie or another Transformers, but seeing as both series’ most recent installment grossed over $1 billion worldwide, I understand why we are (even if I don’t quite understand how those gigantic grosses were achieved, seeing as nobody seems to have liked the movies). I even understand why we’re getting a sequel to 21 Jump Street, which had a comparable budget-to-gross figure as the movies discussed here, yet with much more pop culture viability. What I don’t understand is why studios are getting into the business of making sequels to any ol’ medium-sized hit with no particular resonance in the zeitgeist. Most sequels that get made probably shouldn’t get made for one reason or another, whether it’s the lack of story logic for a follow-up, a tendency to just be a remake in a different setting or because most sequels usually just suck. Yes, I said at the beginning that there are many I love, so I’m not saying, “Don’t make sequels.” I’m just saying, “Be more selective about the sequels you make.” Because the odds are that we’re far more likely to get Major League II, Son of the Mask, Look Who’s Talking Too or An American Werewolf in Paris than we are to get The Dark Knight, Terminator 2, The Bourne Ultimatum or Before Sunset.

But there are lots of things about the way this crazy industry operates that I don’t understand. I should have learned by now to stop asking questions. I guess I just love movies too much not to question Hollywood’s unerring penchant for making baffling decisions.

August 9, 2012

Pixar: The Trap of Great Expectations

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 12:17 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Two weeks ago, after too long a delay, I finally made it to see Brave, the latest from Pixar. I was unsurprised to find that it was a beautifully animated, engaging movie, and if it ranks somewhat low on my list of favorite Pixar flicks, that’s not because I had complaints about it but merely because there are others that I like even more. Pixar sets the bar pretty high, after all, which not only challenges other animated films to meet its standards, but also puts the studio in competition with its own reputation. Case in point: after opening on June 22 to a robust, first place weekend gross of $66 million, this article appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, stating that some financial analysts and Disney investors expressed concerns about the movie’s performance.

The piece quotes Doug Creutz, an entertainment and media analyst at the financial services firm Cowen & Company, saying, “While this was a fine performance in our view and assures Pixar of releasing another profitable film, we remain concerned that the creative direction of Pixar may be wobbling as Brave is now the second consecutive film to receive less-than-rave reviews.”

Upon reading that sentence, my thought was that this guy needs to pull his head out of his ass.

First off, take a minute to appreciate the amazing  – I have to think unprecedented – run Pixar has had, both creatively and financially. 13 films that so far have grossed a total of over $3 billion dollars. The lowest grossing of them, 1998’s A Bug’s Life, made nearly $163 million. Not too shabby. The most poorly reviewed of them, Cars 2, may have received only 38% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 57 on Metacritic, but still grossed $191 million (and frankly, wasn’t nearly as bad as its detractors would have you believe). Brave‘s Rotten Tomatoes score is 77%, its Metacritic score is 69 and so far it has taken in about $224 million at the domestic box office and has yet to fall out of the top ten highest grossing movies currently playing. (That will probably happen this weekend.)

True, these box office numbers and aggregate review scores may be on the low-end for Pixar, but what that should really illustrate is how superhuman a studio it is. The run of success they’ve enjoyed from the start is something to marvel at, not use as fodder for unwarranted concerns the minute numbers dip slightly. With the exception of maybe The Beatles, nobody can sustain so impressive a streak. Creutz is concerned because Brave received “less-than-rave reviews”? For a guy who’s supposed to be an expert at analyzing the field of entertainment, he doesn’t seem too aware of the industry’s realities. The rapturous reactions to previous Pixar movies have spoiled people like Creutz to the norms of the movie business, and the studio’s good fortune deceives people into thinking that Pixar’s creative team has some kind of crystal ball and that they just know what’s going to work. Such assumptions make snappy lines for movie critics who begin their reviews by saying, “The wizards at Pixar have done it again”, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. Come, lean in close, I don’t want to say it too loud.

They’re not actually wizards.

They’re only human. Extremely talented and gifted humans, but still prone to the same ups and downs as the rest of us normal schmucks. And that means that their efforts to tell the best stories they can in the best way they can are not always going to yield unanimously glorious reviews, record-breaking box office and a stash of awards. It means they might have to settle for mostly positive reviews, perfectly respectable box office and maybe just some award nominations. Perish the thought. Pixar being called into question by number crunching putzes like Doug Creutz is more offensive than the stench of Brave‘s pitiable 77% positive Rotten Tomatoes rating. Considering that the only creativity Creutz and his ilk probably ever practiced involves coming up with new ways to make money, they should keep their mouths shut when it comes to criticizing filmmakers who have displayed, time and time and time again, a gift for telling stories that resonate with audiences of all ages and across cultures. Though I don’t think Creutz and the other concerned investors and analysts were discussing Brave‘s performance together in the conference room at some Wall Street skyscraper, I’m reminded nevertheless of that superb, cutting quote from The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg is in a deposition responding to the opposing attorney. “The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” It’s that part about “doing things that nobody in this room is intellectually or creatively capable of doing.” That’s what I’d say to Creutz and his skeptical colleagues; that they have no clue what it takes to make a movie, let alone make one that works. At the end of the day, it’s a lot of luck, and even The Wizards at Pixar can only try their best and hope the end result connects with audiences.

Pixar was bound to stumble eventually, and with Cars 2, it finally happened. Brave may not be their biggest hit or their best reviewed movie, but it’s a fine piece of work that its crew can be proud of. Their upcoming slate – which includes a prequel to Monsters, Inc., three original projects and a follow-up to Finding Nemo – will likely perform perfectly well in terms of box office success, and will probably do okay critically too. And if not all of them hit the heights of Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo, or Up – their current top three grossers, as well as Oscar winners with A+ Rotten Tomatoes scores – well maybe that doesn’t mean that the studio has fallen on hard times. If their next three movies all underperform commercially and critically, then we can talk. Until then, dipshits like Creutz should get back to their spreadsheets and leave the creative work to the people who have proven they know how to do it.

(All references to box office receipts are taken from Box Office Mojo.)

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