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What Would People Think?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Big Budget Does Not Always = Bad Film

Time for a scattered rant.

I was going to write a post about the prejudice against big budget films, at least among movie buffs like myself and my friends. Much of this stems from reading, in rapid succession, Danielle's dissing of King Kong and Chronicles of Narnia ("I am tired of movies with lots of shiny special effects. I want movies where the actors act") and some moron telling Ebert that Batman Begins was one of the worst movies of the year.

Then I went to see Underworld: Evolution with some vampire-loving friends. I was reminded WHY movie buffs like me usually dislike big budget films. Empty, mindless special effects. Either no plot or TOO MUCH pretentious plot. No acting. And I don't give a damn about the characters. (To Kate Beckinsale: Let's see your resume. Pearl Harbor. Underworld. Van Helsing. Underworld: Evolution. Whatever happened to the days when you appeared in films like Much Ado About Nothing?)

So instead of going on a self-righteous rant against perceived elitism, I pulled back and remembered that, yes, most big budget films do suck. But not all.

There's nothing wrong with being a crowd-pleaser, as long as you actually please the crowd. Let's take a comic book example. X-Men, good. Fantastic Four, bad. Spider-Man, good. Daredevil, bad.

The point is, I don't mind seeing shiny special effects and action as long as (1) the action is interesting, (2) the effects and action are put at the service of a good plot. After all, that's what a movie ultimately is: a story. If you can weave a good yarn with special effects, I'm there. If you can tell a good tale with a small cast of character actors, count me in.

The latter can be screwed up, too. Good small, character-based film: Shopgirl. Bad small, character-based film: Closer.

Oh, and to close...as the ultimate example of a film that weaves together good story, good acting, AND good special effects - The Lord of the Rings series. Cinematic achievement of our lifetimes.

Update: Apologies to Kate Beckinsale. She HAS been in good movies as of late. She played the (sadly under-written) role of Ava Gardner in The Aviator.

9 Comments:

  • I haven't seen Underworld yet (I'm not sure I plan to), but I wanted to defend it somewhat by quoting my friend Billy's away message: "If you like things exploding and hot chicks, see this movie." Such movies exist precisely for the reason that many people like explosions and hot chicks (including myself on occasion). For instance, I agree with you that Fantastic Four was a bad film, but I enjoyed it. Every now and then, I just like to shut my brain off.

    The reason big budget movies succeed while small ones, I think, is that many people like to turn their brains off so much they eventually discard the "on" switch (if they even had one to begin with).

    By Blogger Mike, at 1/22/2006 2:14 PM  

  • I completely disagree with you about the small films. I thought Shopgirl was pretty damn bad. The music was perhaps the worst-fitting music I've ever heard in a movie. Steve Martin's voiceovers were horrible, meaningless, hokey, and poorly-read. The whole thing was about Steven Martin trying to convince himself that he could still entice and bed a twenty-four year old.

    On the other hand, Closer was amazing. It stuck with me more than all but a handful of movies ever have. The acting and Direction was great (especially Clive Owen). Yeah, it didn't leave the viewer with a very happy feeling, but it was amazing.

    By Blogger Barzelay, at 1/23/2006 2:33 PM  

  • Action can serve a plot, but it almost necessarily precludes effective character development. If you're okay with only one or two leads being surrounded by a bunch of one-dimensional characters, that's cool. Those who like a lot of deep characters aren't going to be as interested in action movies (which most of the big-budget films are) as those who can operate on mostly plot with one or two good characters. As far as King Kong is concerned, I would have liked to learn more about the characters of Adrien Brody, Jack Black, and Early Edition guy, but it didn't happen.

    That, in essence, is what drew people who don't usually like action flicks to LOTR - at least nine well-explored characters and interesting plot movement (even if the acting got a little bit hammy at times).

    By Blogger Jeff, at 1/23/2006 6:11 PM  

  • Closer was a soulless excercise in dialogue. A linking together of a bunch of cool lines uttered by shallow, one-dimensional characters. A movie that pretended to expose the dark under-belly of human relationships, but in fact spoke no truth about relationships. They could only speak so many quotable one-liners before I really just didn't give a damn about any of the characters.

    Jeff, I think you are giving action short shrift. Not every character in a movie must be deeply developed. If there is enough development/investment in the characters, action is exciting. It gets the adrenaline pumping as you care about what happens to the characters and are therefore invested what is happening during the action sequences.

    And sometimes, honestly, action is just fun. I was on the edge of my seat in King Kong during that scene with the T-Rexes, the cliff, and the vines.

    By Blogger Ben, at 1/23/2006 7:02 PM  

  • What about a movie like, say, The Mummy? Lots of action, some character development(though based essentially on archtypes) and ultimately an incredibly engaging and entertaining film. Not an amazingly brilliant and deep film, but a good movie none-the-less. In fact, as far as popcorn flicks go, it's about perfect. And while we all want brilliant artistic films too, simpler popcorn flicks serve a much-needed purpose.

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 1/24/2006 1:43 PM  

  • Let me state for the record that I am not opposed to popcorn flicks and usually enjoy them. That's why I listed movies like Red Eye and Batman Begins among the best movies of the year last Christmas.

    There's a difference between a movie where you can turn off your brain and enjoy it....and a movie that just plain insults your intelligence.

    By Blogger Ben, at 1/24/2006 1:50 PM  

  • Yeah, The Mummy is a film that I enjoyed but that a lot of people who are more engaged by interesting characters would not have enjoyed. I put that under the heading of "Movies That Don't Take Themselves Too Seriously." (Incidentally, the tongue-in-cheek quality of this movie is why I could like it and dislike King Kong.)

    The problem with King Kong, for me, is that the action was happening to the wrong characters. I could have cared less if Adrien Brody got squished by a dinosaur or eaten by a spider or whatever. And action itself just doesn't hold my interest like it used to. I honestly got bored during the big action sequences in King Kong.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 1/24/2006 2:26 PM  

  • What about action qua action versus action as art? I haven't seen Kong yet, and I suspect I'd like it fine, but not love it from what I've heard. However, a movie with a ton of action that I did love was Sin City. Tons of action, not a huge amount of character development (character interactions and such, but again, largely stereo-typed roles played as cliches (though they sucked you in a little more than a film like The Mummy)). Anyways, that movie was brilliant largely because of it's action, which served as part of the artwork... thoughts?

    By Blogger Matthew B. Novak, at 1/24/2006 3:45 PM  

  • Yeah, I can sometimes appreciate action as art, but it's gotta be really unique or groundbreaking to register on my level. And sometimes the action can help to create atmosphere, which is one thing I like in movies, so I suppose action as art is okay.

    King Kong's action... well, I had seen most of it already in films like Jurassic Park and the LOTR series (not surprisingly). And Skull Island was a little too cartoony for me - admittedly outlandishness was kind of the point. They are well executed, though, and if you a special effects person you'll enjoy the movie.

    By Blogger Jeff, at 1/25/2006 12:16 AM  

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