Recently I read the fascinating book The Big Picture by Ben Fritz which chronicles the dramatic changes in last two decades or so in the movie industry and one thing stuck out to me more clearly than ever. Most of us cinephiles have bemoaned that the current climate seems to only allow for very big event movies at the expense of the mid-budget projects that used to be the lifeblood of the cinema. But the problem is that the ever increasing price of movie tickets coupled, the plethora of alternative entertainment options at home, and the rapid improvements made in home entertainment technology have suddenly turned these once safe mid-budget projects into the most risky venture in Hollywood. A good quality mid-budget release is no longer guaranteed box office success while a middling-to-poor quality release that used to at least break even or produce a small loss for the studio is now almost guaranteed to be a box-office bomb.
And the reason for this is simple: for the general public it is no longer worth it to check out these kind of movies in the theatre. I go to the movies on my own nowadays, and a matinee ticket with my raisinets and small soda (my standard order) easily sets me back close to $25 bucks. And the dirty little secret that most cinephiles like myself have to bury deep down to ignore is that while the big screen will always be the best way to watch movies, the gap between movie theatres and home entertainment technology has narrowed until it is close to negligible. Of the Best Picture nominees this year only Dunkirk would qualify as the movie whose full power of storytelling was somewhat diminished by appearing on a smaller screen. For the rest of the nominees the difference between the big screen and my eight-year old HDTV was minimal to negligible. And so the only real advantages that movie theatres have over home entertainment for these mid-budget movies is being the first in line in the movie release window while providing a slightly better viewing experience. For most people, those benefits are simply not worth the cost of $25 a head. For most people, they are going to wait until these movies get a home release.
I was struck with this particular train of thought this month because it suddenly makes Netflix’s strategy of content acquisition make a lot of sense. Most of the Netflix movies that I saw being added this month would have in years past been solid mid-budget performers at the box office, but would absolutely bomb in today’s movie market (This month The Polka King and A Futile and Stupid Gesture especially fall into that category). Yet Netflix doesn’t care about box office revenue. It simply cares about getting enough content to drive users to its site. And it also understands that it isn’t as if the public had suddenly gotten turned off by the prospect of mid-budget star vehicles. They simply weren’t showing up at the price point of modern theatre ticket prices. But include it as part of their subscription and available to them at the click of a button, and people will still show in droves. All hail Netflix. Ignore its model and lessons at your peril.
NOBODY SPEAK: TRIALS OF THE FREE PRESS (2017) dir. Brian Knappenberger
Somewhere in this mess of a movie there is a valid argument to be made that in our current climate the freedom of press is being systematically undermined by powerful billionaires. Unfortunately by choosing the Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker legal case over Hogan’s leaked sex-tape hardly seems like the ideal case with which to anchor your argument. Yes, the lawsuit ultimately put Gawker out of business, was financed by a powerful billionaire, and the punishment meted out by the courts was unusually harsh. But the general consensus was that even though Gawker was an organization that sometimes put out some great journalism they were also an organization that engaged in the most clickbait-y journalism out there, often publishing things that other more reputable journalistic organizations did not dare touch. And in the Correa v Gawker case, the feeling was that ultimately they had been brought down by stupid, irresponsible journalism. But as director Brian Knappenberger would have you believe, the results of this case would have far reaching legal precedent for the rest of journalism (something legal experts are not in agreement about coincidentally) and thus should act as a call to arms to all those who care about the freedom of the press especially, as the latter half of the documentary tries to show, journalism is under threat by billionaires including the President of the United States. The problem is that Knappenberger goes about his argument using logical leaps, false equivalencies, and slippery-slope arguments left, right, and centre leading to a film that will only play well with people who already buy the central argument and are willing to overlook the clumsy way it is articulated here. But if the arguments here are poor enough to annoy me, who self-identifies as a liberal with a high value for freedom of the press, you can bet that the movie won’t win any new converts either.
THE POLKA KING (2017) dir. Maya Forbes
From the moment this film begins it almost immediately evokes Jack Black’s other true story film about an eccentric but beloved local figure who ultimately gets ensnared in crime, namely Richard Linklater’s underrated Bernie. Unfortunately the parallels prove to be more than just a passing reflection. In this story, Black plays Jan Lewan, a popular leader of a polka band in Pennsylvania who has big dreams and little legitimate way of achieving them. Fortunately he is a respected member of his community and manages to leverage that respect into convincing members of his community to invest in his band with the lucrative promise of a 12% return of investment in what turns out to be an elaborate Ponzi scheme. The affability of Jan manages to fool everyone including his bandmate and closest friend Mickey (Jason Schwartzmann) and his wife Marla (Jenny Slate). The problem in this movie is that it cannot quite decide what tone to take with the material. Does it go in a tragicomic direction as was so deftly handled in Linklater’s Bernie? Or does it go for something much more decidedly screwball, say with the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading? Ultimately it chooses to do both and pulls off neither well resulting in a film that is interesting enough in the moment (especially with Black’s manic and magnetic performance) but ultimately does not linger long past the end credits.
GODZILLA: PLANET OF THE MONSTERS (2017) dir. Hiroyuki Seshita & Kobun Shizuno
The best anime movies are exercises in highly imaginative storytelling bolstered by some truly stunning visuals. The worst anime movies however lean heavily on their visuals as a crutch to disguise the fact that there is very little story to be told while turning most of the movie into an exposition machine. This unfortunately is the camp Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters falls into. This latest Godzilla feature is part of a new trilogy being developed by Toho around the iconic monster and the story does take the inventive step of starting with humanity having evacuated earth to escape Godzilla and a cavalcade of monsters who have reduced the earth to ruin. After spending what turns out to be 20,000 years adrift in space (that is actually shorter because of wormholes and stuff) the survivors of earth return home to take their planet back. This sounds exciting in theory however the pace of this movie is glacial as various figures monologue and argue with one another on the proper way to pass, all the while filling us in on the mythology of this new series. There are a plethora of scenes with overly serious military types staring at large screens as they debate and strategize the way back to earth all the while tossing in science fiction language so as to lend the movie some semblance of legitimacy. The visual style, while impressive at first glance with it’s 2.5-D look, quickly becomes tiresome and dreary. It looks much like some of the video games of my youth where the visual style was created specifically to mask the limitations of my game system. And after an eternity of set-up the movie quickly rushes through the actual encounter with Godzilla as it quickly becomes apparent that the filmmakers are saving something for the next instalments of the trilogy, effectively reducing this movie to being nothing more than a drawn-out prologue.
A FUTILE AND STUPID GESTURE (2018) dir. David Wain
A biopic about the enigmatic founder of the National Lampoon Doug Kenney would not be considered a faithful retelling of his life if it did not invite some controversy and the decision to hire Martin Mull to narrate the story as a much older version of Kenney, when Doug Kenney himself died at 33 in what was either a cocaine-induced accidental fall or a suicide attempt, is certainly a controversial choice. And much like that decision, the rest of David Wain’s movie similarly tries to push against the conventions of the biopic genre by pointing out how cliche it is without ever truly breaking out of the cliche itself. It has all the typical story beats of a biopic as it chronicles Doug Kenney’s (played by Will Forte) rise from college slacker to publisher of one of the biggest comedy rags in the country and the media empire it spawned and follows it all the way to his drug-induced fall. Wain continually winks at us in an obvious ploy of deflection against the conventionality of the movie, but ultimately in only serves to highlight that we’ve seen this kind of story many times before. Fortunately Forte is convincingly humourous and tragic as Kenney and Kenney’s partner in crime Henry Beard is expertly played by Domhnall Gleason (the best scenes of this movie are when the two of them interact with one another, and Beard’s disappearance in the second half of the film coincides with a descent into mediocrity). The film also is at odds with itself in terms of its actual tone as it’s Animal House-style anarchic humour puts it severely at odds at the more serious examinations of Kenney’s flaws and weaknesses. In the end the movie is a wonderful fan tribute made by the director and actors who clearly grew up on the Lampoon and credit it as formative to their own career arcs, but that same love keeps the movie from having any real insight into the Lampoon, its creator, and why its success couldn’t save him.
TAKE YOUR PILLS (2018) dir. Alison Klayman
“Try to be the best you can be.” If ever there was a mantra for the 21st century, this is it. On the surface it might come across as a grace-filled statement, meant to give you and I a pass in fields that we aren’t naturally efficient in (“If you are a B-minus student, be the best B-minus student you can be”). But as Take Your Pills so poignantly and terrifyingly shows, that piece of advice is really a millstone around our collective necks because it suggests that our worth is derived from approaching the ceiling of our performance and production. Take Your Pills takes a deep dive into America’s obsession with prescription stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, and perfectly placing that obsession into the narrative of the American dream and the pressure to succeed. Directed by Alison Klayman, the documentary does descend into myopic sensationalism sometimes. For instance, the fact that there is a legitimate use for these drugs for people who have been diagnosed with ADHD and ADD is severely minimized in this documentary. But for Klayman the issue is less the particular drugs themselves, but the reality that for close to a century America has used stimulants in the never-ending quest of getting ahead (the first article about college students using amphetamines appeared in 1937). She is much more concerned with the hyper-competitiveness of late capitalism in America, which is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because anybody worth their salt can agree that late capitalism is producing some unhealthy collective neuroses amongst us all. However, anybody who spends any time thinking about that also realizes that the overuse and potential abuse of stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin are only a portion of the problem. Klayman however marries the two issues of overuse of stimulants and late capitalism so closely that the strength of her argument fades the moment you have half a moment to reflect on it for yourself.