Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Starting and Ending the Summer On Top

Robert Downey Jr.'s story this year is really one for the books; this is the year he finally claimed what had been coming to him since being nominated for an Oscar for his sensational work in Sir Richard Attenborough's Chaplin: the title of box-office king. This has actually already been covered in an article published in Time magazine that featured an interview with Downey and came out some weeks before the release of his certified blockbuster Iron Man, but I thought to say something in view of the fact that two of his three projects this year, Iron Man and Tropic Thunder, have been bona fide number one box-office hits, being the first and last big hits of the 2008 U.S. summer box office.

The best part about Downey's story, though, is is that he didn't exactly disappear into the ether when he had his drug problem and emerge years later expecting be treated like the Hollywood royalty he was following his Oscar nod in 1993. No, aside from his trips to rehab, he's also kept himself busy with a variety of projects, some of them obviously just for the paycheck (The Shaggy Dog), while others with arguable entertainment value (Bowfinger, Gothika, In Dreams), while others still reminding people of his caliber as an actor (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Zodiac). In other words, when he nabbed the role of Tony Stark he wasn't exactly trying to cash in on his goodwill from Chaplin, or even from his stint on Ally McBeal.

Downey is an inspiration to underperforming slackers everywhere. He's the kid with the 180 I.Q. who failed all his subjects because his mind was elsewhere or he's busy smoking weed and who managed to get his head out of his ass a few years later and finally graduate. I'm sure it's been written elsewhere that this guy was once Hollywood's greatest wasted talent, but if it hasn't then allow me to coin the phrase. Well, it's now a thing of the past.

Also, for me the underperforming genius analogy isn't that far from the truth because what Downey brings to his roles is a distinct intelligence, something you don't quite get from Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. He's kind of like George Clooney that way, and if his portrayal of Tony Stark was criticized for being too Jack Sparrow, I think it's because he and Depp share the same mad-genius approach to eccentric characters like the ones they portrayed in their respective blockbusters. I'm absolutely champing at the bit to see him as a crazy Australian method actor who has his skin color altered to play a black man in Tropic Thunder. From what I've seen his performance looks out-and-out insane.

Welcome back, Robert. Please stay on the wagon this time so we moviegoers can bask in your greatness for a long time to come.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pixar and the Law of Diminishing Returns

Pixar Animation Studios is easily the king of the animation hill nowadays, in terms of both quality and box-office take. Of its nine feature-length films, only one has grossed less than $190 million in the United States: 1998's A Bug's Life. They average a healthy 90% or so on websites polling movie critic reactions like metacritic or rottentomatoes. Since the animated film feature award was introduced in 2001 Pixar have only lost it twice (to Shrek in '01 and Happy Feet in '06) and have more animated feature Oscars than any other studio. Their films, year in and year out, just seem to get better and better (with the exception of Cars, which left several critics cold). So things should, ideally, be all happy in Pixar land, right?

Well, maybe not necessarily.

Since the arguably underwhelming performance of A Bug's Life, Pixar movies experienced very healthy box-office returns with Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles each making at least a quarter of a billion dollars at the United States box office. Cars nearly reached the quarter of a billion benchmark as well. In terms of box-office, however, Ratatouille made heads turn by having both the lowest opening weekend box-office AND final box-office returns of any Pixar movie since A Bug's Life. In fact, it was estimated that allowing for inflation, Ratatouille is the lowest grossing movie ever to come from Pixar. It seems that although critics (and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) loved it, a lot of people were not thrilled with the thought of rats preparing gourmet food.

This year's WALL-E should have marked a return to form. Written and directed by Andrew Stanton, one of the masterminds behind Finding Nemo, Pixar's biggest hit to date, it's a superb film that should pretty easily walk away with yet another Best Animated Feature Oscar for the studio next February. Critics loved it. The protagonist is cute and lovable, the story is moving and relevant, and the visuals are astonishing. It DID make over $200 million dollars and surpassed Ratatouille's underwhelming (for Pixar) grosses. However, like that movie about the gourmet chef of a rat it looks like it'll sputter out long before the quarter billion mark, which Pixar films used to hurdle without popping a sweat. Taking inflation since the release of those older films into account and the chasm becomes that much bigger.

My question, then, is: what one earth is going on here? We're talking about a company that makes some of the best MOVIES, let alone animated ones, around. With our childhood heroes like Spielberg and Lucas now producing tripe like the latest Indiana Jones movie and the Star Wars prequels (including a VERY poorly received cartoon prequel), these guys feel like the only true pioneers left (i.e., filmmakers that make their living off purely original, as opposed to adapted, material) with passion and vision. Since the traditional animation industry basically breathed its last a few years ago these guys have taken the baton and have led animated films into a new age. It got kind of crazy two years ago when something like a dozen CGI films came out, but things have since settled down again and the last two years have had a much more reasonable number of films come out.

It's hard to form any real box-office trends from Pixar movies considering that, with the exception of Toy Story 2 and the upcoming sequel to Cars, each movie they come up with is a fresh one and stands or fails on its own merits or weaknesses, but it is genuinely dismaying to me that WALL-E didn't do better at the box-office considering it easily stands head and shoulders above anything else out there in movie theaters. I liked it better than my previous favorite for the year, Iron Man, and certainly better than the much ballyhooed The Dark Knight. Though we're essentially talking apples and oranges, it appears the critics liked it better, too.

There's no point in prescribing any cure for this apparent downtrend because Pixar are, and will probably remain, better at what they do than anyone else. Audiences will watch what they want to watch, and no one can tell them otherwise. I'm just pointing out that for a film so in keeping with everything that has made Pixar such a giant of the industry to perform poorly relative to its predecessors is slightly perturbing.

If I were to hazard some "advice," it would be that, maybe, just maybe, audiences are looking for something new. Considering that Pixar's next offering will have 3-D portions, maybe they've already figured that out, and I hope their leap of faith pays off, because if anyone deserves to be rewarded for boldly going where no one has gone before, it's them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I never bought into the fanboy ranting that proclaimed Batman Begins as the best superhero movie of all time. I mainly adhered to the tried and true maxim "to each his own," but I also had a number of reasons why, while I enjoyed the movie, a lot, even, I don't consider it one of my all time favorites. Most of my reasons had to do with the time Bruce Wayne actually donned the mask.

I've heard similar criticisms about the Spider-Man movies, and pretty much wrote them off to that aforesaid maxim. There was one critic on one site who just kept ranting about how untrue the movie was to the character and how fake the special effects looked (which I found true for the first and much of the third installment but not the second) but most of his ranting just seemed like irrational fanboy hate. Fortunately I actually met someone who could actually articulate what it is he really disliked about the movie: the complete absence of Spider-Man's witty quips.

Now that The Dark Knight is, even adjusting for ticket price differentials, on its way to becoming the highest grossing comic-book movie of all time, it's dawning on me that there are a lot more fans who would have plunked down some more money to watch the Spider-Man movies again if the mythology had been tweaked more because I know for certain that as a comic-book character Spider-Man is at least AS popular as Batman.

Apart from Heath Ledger's death which was probably good for many of the glowing reviews as well as a few tens of millions in grosses (the way Brandon Lee's death arguably enabled his swansong The Crow to make about forty million more dollars than it probably would have had he lived), TDK benefits from being the most faithful page-to-screen comic-book adaptation ever.

Thinking about it now, the problems I had with the script and story devices are problems I would have with the comics in general. I had thought to devote a generous portion of a blog post to a discourse on why Nolan's and Ledger's purportedly "realistic" Joker is a caricatured, inadequate representation of evil considering that most evil in this world, even the worst kind, is motivated by some personal gain and not some insatiable penchant for destruction, but I stopped myself because I realized that this was how the latter-day Joker was written: as the never-ending chaos that perpetually foils Batman's never-ending quest for order in Gotham City. I understood at last why Christopher Nolan "gets it" completely and while Sam Raimi, as noble as his intentions and efforts are (at least in the first two movies), does not.

As a big-screen comic-book hero, Spider-Man could easily match if not exceed Batman in terms of outright popularity. After all, the box-office records set by the first movie stood for years and Sam Raimi's magnus opus will still be the first movie to ever make $100 million on its opening weekend. But there is still a cache of fans that won't give it repeat business because as a page-to-screen translation, something has been lost. The guy who mentioned it a couple of years ago was right on the money: he's missing his snark.

Spider-Man's witty dialogue is what makes him more entertaining than Batman, Superman, Iron Man, the Hulk and all of the superheroes, adapted or waiting to be adapted, together.

Out of the mask, Peter Parker is a luckless loser without money or much of a career to speak of, which is a very compelling aspect of the mythology considering what an intelligent person he is. Raimi gets that. In fact, Raimi's Parker is as close to Stan Lee's vision as you could hope to ever see on the big screen.

But when he puts the mask on, Peter Parker turns into something else altogether, and that's not a bad thing. Spidey guru Peter David put it best in a relatively recent Spider-Man comic book when he, through Spider-Man, explained that being in a mask was somehow "liberating" which enabled him to talk the way he did.

I used to dismiss the possibility of a movie Spider-Man wisecracking by rationalizing that it would be much tougher to choreograph the soaring action scenes, especially those of the second movie, with such dialogue, but recently, I saw something that convinced me otherwise: the new cartoon series The Spectacular Spider-Man. This may be a Saturday morning cartoon, but in many, many respects it's written with much more nuance than many of the movies (especially the third one) and well and truly opened my eyes. I'd absolutely love to have a season of this on DVD, as the dialogue and characterizations are wonderfully faithful and even a little updated, the action is off-the-wall FANTASTIC, and quite crucially, the fight scenes FEATURE the trademark quips.

It was upon watching this that I realized and finally came to acknowledge Raimi's shortcomings in adapting Spider-Man's adventures for the big screen. He GETS Peter out of the costume but doesn't have a clue how he's supposed to act when he's wearing it.

When in costume, Spidey is SUPPOSED to be cocky. He's supposed to have a swagger to him, and it's not SUPPOSED to be a bad thing, the way Raimi made it out to be in the third movie. His one cocky line "I guess you haven't heard, I'm the Sheriff round these parts" in Spider-Man 3, apart from being utterly painful to hear, strongly suggested that Raimi didn't or doesn't believe that Spider-Man should make wisecracks. I understand now why that would bother fans.

Well, here's the thing, Sam: if you profess to love Lee's and Ditko's Spidey as opposed to the later stuff by other creators, then you should know, by just perusing your first or collected editions, that the wiseass as Spider-Man is as integral to Lee's scripts as his money problems and responsibility hangups. This was not added on by later writers; it was an idiosyncrasy conceived by Lee himself. Try to understand, Sam: it's not a superfluity at all; in fact, in enriches the character's mythology by creating a fascinating dichotomy within him.

Spider-Man is a supremely confident and assured superhero who spends most of his time trapped in a loser/wimp's body. It is in donning his mask that he is able to set this side of himself free. When he is Spider-Man suddenly the money problems and other inadequacies in his life fall away, and he is able to bask in the glory of being super-powered. In fact, this scenario was deliberately engineered by Lee because in suggesting that Peter gets "high" on being Spidey, he presents an interesting dilemma of responsibility where Spider-Man might be shirking his other obligations to the likes of Aunt May by playing superhero.

The cockiness, confidence and wisecracks, in short, are an INDISPENSABLE part of the Spider-Man mythos, just as much as the luckless loser that Peter Parker is.

While the action sequences in the Spider-Man films (especially the second one) are really cool to watch, they do not project enough of that confidence, if at all.

Come to think of it, ROBERT DOWNEY JR. does a better job of selling Spider-Man's snark...too bad he plays IRON MAN, who isn't really known for it. Maybe he should trade his red and gold for a little red and blue? Well, maybe if he were twenty years or so younger...

Spider-Man 4 is due out in a few years, and Hollywood and fanboys being the way they are, the pressure will probably be on to equal if not exceed the heights that TDK is now scaling. Heck, the pressure will even be on to equal if not exceed the standard of quality Marvel's very own studio has set with Iron Man. I'd rather not think in those terms, but considering the first three movies have demonstrated the law of diminishing returns whereas the latest Batman movie has squarely defied it, Raimi might want to and quite frankly SHOULD reevaluate his narrative approach to arguably the most beloved comic book hero of all.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

How The Dark Knight Turned Out to Be Good For Robert Downey, Jr.

I only just read a little blurb on yahoo! news about how Robert Downey, Jr., now known to the world as Tony Stark/Iron Man, recently had to come down to earth after riding on cloud nine for a few months following the runaway success of Marvel Comics' first independently-financed film. It seemed he was reveling in his newfound status as fanboy god, but eventually came to the realization that if it got to his head, he may well be looking at yet another post-Chaplin downward spiral. Nothing was actually said about The Dark Knight's success having anything to do with his sudden flash of sobriety, but the article did say he was regarded as the mastermind of the greatest comic-book movie of all time, until The Dark Knight came out. There's something in the subtext (perhaps the slant of the article) that suggested that the overwhelming success of TDK in a season that had up until that point belonged to Iron Man might have pointed out to the star of the latter movie that, hey, he's mortal after all. Good thing, too, because at least we fans know he won't do what Tobey Maguire did when the time to make Spider-Man 2 came around and claim some kind of injury while holding out his hand for mucho bucks.

Now, while I liked Iron Man over The Dark Knight, I won't bother entering into debates on artistic merit. However, one point I will fiercely defend is how Downey, Jr., with his Howard- Hughes-meets-Hugh-Hefner swagger and his credible portrayal of Tony Stark's incredible intellect, was much more instrumental to bringing Iron Man, as a film, to life than Christian Bale, with his giggle/wince-inducing impression of Kevin Conroy (which really sounds like a lame version of a twelve-year old trying to sound like Clint Eastwood) was to bringing TDK alive. Everyone, even the fans, knows that TDK is the late Heath Ledger's movie, as his portrayal of Batman's archnemesis the Joker was what received the most attention. For my money, even Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent/Two-Face stole the show from Bale. In fact, in the story as well as in the actual performances, Bale/Batman is pretty much just along for the ride. Not so with Iron Man. Even amid solid performances by pros like Jeff Bridges and Gwyneth Paltrow, Downey, Jr. stood head and shoulders above them all. Even people who dismiss the movie as mediocre cannot help but salute what was essentially a bravura performance that only the most fastidious of purists would bother to decry.

The next Batman movie won't have Ledger, or his death, to raise its profile, but Downey Jr. will, barring his falling off the wagon or worse, definitely be back for more Tony Stark, and if it's one thing he needs more than anything it's to maintain his fantastic sense of focus on the portrayal of the character. I don't imagine he would have been able to do that if he remained too intoxicated on his success this year. The guy has shown the way for anyone who wants to portray a Marvel character (or anyone who's considering returning to play a Marvel character) and though he no longer has the #1 movie of 2008 on his resume, he's not about to be forgotten anytime soon.

Will Iron Man 2 eventually eclipse the records set by TDK? Well, buoyed as that movie was by all things Ledger, I don't think so. But if solid, if not record-breaking box-office is the tradeoff for more and more amazing performances by the greatest-actor-ever-to-resurrect-his-career-from -the-dead (I'd like to secure a copyright to this phrase if I may) then may Iron Man movies never ascend to the number #1 spot of any year in which they are released. Downey, Jr., and his fans the world over, will be all the better for it.