Taking a break from our usual routine of being a shoddily run film reviewing crew on a rapidly sinking ship, we took this week to cast our minds back over the year that just passed. Keen on the idea of declaring war on abstract concepts, Joseph "Jay Dub" Wade kicks us off with a look at what he is calling the "war on cinema," Special guest and animation expert Anne "Pick" Knudson takes a look at the current state of the animated side of the film industry, Martin R. "Vargo" Schneider spies a social trend in today's cinematic climate, top-notch movie blogger Jordan "CloseFriend" Said explores the influences that video games have had on the film industry, Sean "Keanu Grieves" Hanson picks out some great horror that we may have missed this year, cautiously optimistic guest Ashley "TwistedLadder" Herald casts her hopeful eye over the representation of women in the year's offerings, Ian "Professor Clumsy" Maddison surprises everyone and pontificates about penises and we close with the wit-fuelled blogger Libby "Gentleman Loser" Cudmore taking Robert Rodriguez to task for Machete Kills.
Every year around this time, we all call a truce in the War on Christmas. No doubt, next November we'll pick up right where we left off. For now, though, it's time to turn our sights back toward a war that never seems to end. I'm talking, of course, about the War on Cinema. This war has been raging since before the invention of talkies, but shows no signs of ending anytime soon. 2013 saw some developments in this war, by which all manner of nerdlingers, blowhards and corporate entities have been chipping away at this thing we call film. Here now are a few status reports from various fronts over the holiday break.
The Marvel Front
So, am I dead or what?In recent years, Marvel has made a concerted effort to mold their film division into something more akin to their comic output. We've mentioned before our disdain for Marvel Studios' films; their stories hinging more on the need for interconnected sequels and crossovers than being independently coherent. This year, however, Marvel appeared to turn a corner. While Thor: The Dark World teased the studio's continued obsession with franchise-building, Iron Man 3 made the brave choice by telling a story about Robert Downey, Jr. coming to terms with the looming end of his contract. Blowing up all the Iron Mans has to be a metaphor for something, right?
But ladies and gentlemen, Marvel's war on cinema is now being televised. Tuesdays at 8PM on ABC (check your local listings), you can watch Joss Whedon and friends fart world-building out their asses on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Taking place after the events of The Avengers, the show follows Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), a dead body who has mysteriously brought together a crack team of comic relief to fight superhero crimes deemed not important enough for theaters.
On its own, that wouldn't be a big deal. After all, nobody is holding a gun to our heads and forcing us to watch this show. Not literally, anyway. But the way this series picks up plot threads from other films and weaves new threads out of whole cloth for later installments means that if we want the slightest clue as to what's going on in the Avengers sequel, we'd better tune in. I'll admit, I gave up on this show long before the much-touted Thor tie-in. By the time they started hyping that episode, the writing was pretty much on the wall. This show was going to tease its own central questions until the next film adventure rolled around to answer them all. Why is Coulson alive? Is Skye who she says she is? How many times can we ask these questions before you stop giving a shit about the answers?
A series like this has been a long time coming. It's the culmination of years of studios working out how to squeeze a few more dollars from their franchises. Instead of simply making content that fleshes out the story in unnecessary ways, Disney/Marvel/ABC/Television went a step further. S.H.I.E.L.D. ties into the crap we've seen before, sets up crap we'll have to deal with in theaters next summer, and rakes in millions of advertising dollars, because no sizable audience is going to watch this if they have to pay for it themselves.
And if the numbers are any indication, we won't have to contend with this hot mess for much longer. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s midseason finale hit the show's lowest ratings yet, somehow beaten by The Goldbergs, the sitcom airing immediately afterward. More people tuned in for Patton Oswalt's Wonder Years than they did for the Avengers D-Squad. The tide of this battle may yet be turning.
The Literary Front
As always, literary adaptations became some of the year's most talked about films. Between Baz Luhrmann's glitzy money pit The Great Gatsby and Peter Jackson's rollicking Hobbit sequel, readers had plenty to get riled up over this year. And once filmmakers riled them up, they took to the internet with a vengeance.
Those fireworks? Cost millions. Minted me, mate.
Gatsby launched a million think pieces and listicles enumerating all the ways in which the film and book differed. "Is Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway a reliable narrator? We first meet him in a sanitarium, so maybe not. Is Tom Buchanan really such a monster in the book? Nope, and here's why..." I'm honestly jealous of high school kids today. Spend thirty seconds on Google and your big English lit presentation has already been done for you fifty times over. And I had to go and read the book like a chump...
(Sidenote: I am now officially an old person for writing the above paragraph.)
The year's other big literary adaptations differ from the books as well. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire commit the Marvel-esque sin of world-building to accommodate their studios' respective money farms. While Catching Fire is a fine film in its own right, the promise that the series' final book will be split in two lends this film an air of inauthenticity. A popular trilogy about overthrowing systems of power is becoming four films, because Lionsgate is only too eager to sell you as much of this story as you can take.
The Hobbit, on the other hand, was met with the gnashing of nerd-teeth because Peter Jackson dared to add new story elements and characters to turn this 310 page novel into a palatable nine-hour trilogy. Some have even gone so far as to label Jackson's take 'fanfiction.' (Because the simple goofiness of the Rankin/Bass cartoon is the paradigm we should all aspire to, I guess.)
Some of the fans hate Legolas, because he's not in the book. Some of them hate Tauriel, because she doesn't exist. Others have spent the last four days arguing about why including black people in Lake Town was wrong. And yet most of these people seem to act as though the adaptation process isn't a thing. This is how stories evolve. The telling may change, embellishments might be made, but as long as the final product is entertaining, then really, who the fuck cares?
God forbid these kinds of fans ever make it into a position of power. Imagine an adaptation of The Hobbit that is faithful to the letter. Now imagine VP OrcSlayer83 demanding it all be spoken in elvish. Then an intern suggests they dub everything over in English so that Middle America can enjoy the film too. That intern just got fired because dubs are for babies.
It only took ninety-three hours to reach this point.
The Grey Zone
And then we have the Grey Zone. This is a holding area for films not designated as Must-See Events, for one reason or another. 2013 saw the Grey Zone expand further than ever before, a vast swath of the year's cinema quarantined from public consumption. Certain films take up too much of the year's physical and mental shelf space, leaving an increasing number of also-rans to rot in the proverbial bargain bin. None of them are good enough to be seen in theaters and none bad enough for ironic viewing. These films will remain in the Grey Zone until they are deemed fit for consumption through the most time-tested of cultural equalizers: basic cable.
Oz: The Great and Powerful, Hammer of the Gods, Percy Jackson 2, Closed Circuit, The Hangover Part III, Copperhead, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The Book Thief. All of these film came out within the last twelve months, and not a single one of them is going to amount to anything more than a doorstop or a drink coaster come 2015. For all intents and purposes, the Grey Zone could go up in flames like the Springfield Tire Yard and not a single person would ever notice.
In the War on Cinema, the Grey Zone is less a quarantine than it is a graveyard. Films wind up here out of neglect, but not by viewers. Perhaps a studio didn't believe in a film enough for a decent marketing push (How I Live Now), or a filmmaker didn't take enough care in making something worth remembering (Jack the Giant Slayer). This year's crop gets dumped on top of last year's crop, and the problem perpetuates itself.
Maybe next year will see a slate of films more worthy of our shelf space, but I highly doubt it. The proliferation of digital streaming and Redbox rentals means there's more room than ever in the Grey Zone. The gates are constantly being inundated by Asylum knockoffs, direct-to-video documentaries, and Z-grade kids movies. To find a gem in that amount of clutter is worth a special commendation.
Here's to a whole new crop of disappointments, transgressions and affronts to cinema in 2014!
I'm haunted by a recurring vision of a skeleton flipping me off. To avoid seeing this terrifying image in bumper sticker form, I pay someone with a blank bumper to drive in front of me at all times.
Cons: causes bad nightmares. I used to have to eat beef until I passed out to have these kind of terrors, but this machine does it for me every time I fall asleep inside it.
Something Awful reviews the latest films in a straightforward (for SA) manner.