Monday, November 11, 2013

Riske Business: Blockbusters, Oscar Bait and Expectations

I’m at a bit of a divide when it comes to movies these days. I have come to the realization that I am no longer the target audience for the big blockbuster movies anymore. Ender’s Game, Thor: The Dark World and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are made for 20-somethings, teens or younger. And the “Oscar bait” movies of the day often disappoint me as well. I’m not going to give up watching blockbusters or the movies jockeying for awards. That would be a dumb solution. I might dismiss something and end up missing the next pleasant surprise. So what should I do? I think it all has to do with expectations. And I need to adjust mine.
Adjusting my expectations for blockbusters is going to be easier. I just need them to entertain me. That’s it. Entertain me. I’m not going to pay any mind to how my heart sinks and I’m bored out of my mind when the trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug comes on. I’ll simply block it out and think about something else, like what column I’ll write next week or why the hell there aren’t any cool Chanukah decorations that I can put up at home. Because if I live in the moment for that Hobbit trailer, I’m going to be driven into a rage by how derivative it looks and that’s not fair. Honestly, I’m just jealous because it’s another reminder that most blockbusters are not for me. I want to be excited about Iron Man or Star Wars, but I’m not. So I’m not going to expect anything out of them except that they have to entertain me. If they do, awesome. If they don’t, I can pass judgment. Simple as that. Ender’s Game looked awful judging by its trailer, and then I saw the movie and found it entertaining and interesting. It’s a diversion. Not something that will stand the test of time, but I’m happy I saw it.

I’m also not going to read plot synopses for blockbuster movies anymore, because it doesn’t matter. Is reading a plot summary for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire going to give me an idea of what the experience watching it will be? No way. And have you ever tried to read a synopsis of something like Thor: The Dark World? Try it. I dare you to read the Wikipedia summary for that movie and not want to quit halfway through. If I only went off of the plot summary to judge if Thor: The Dark World was for me, I would have never seen it. I did see it this past weekend, and guess what? I was entertained. I liked it more than the first one, so it was a pleasant surprise. Again, it was a diversion. I’m never going to re-watch it and I won’t remember it by next weekend, but I’m happy I saw it.
The funny thing is there ARE blockbusters for me. They are the ones with adult actors playing adults outside of the realm of fantasy, superheroes and outer space. I love the Fast and Furious series (even more as I get older). I get excited about the newest James Bond movie. I look forward to the next Mission: Impossible outing with Tom Cruise. So there is something for me -- they're merely fewer and farther between, which makes them more special when they come around. I can still geek out. I just don’t have the capacity to geek out over every fanboy property. Thank goodness for that. I need to think about things other than movies every once in a while.

Awards season movies are trickier, because they are essentially defined by high expectations. I love to follow what is going on at film festivals -- particularly Sundance and Toronto, which are basically in place to sound the alarm for what will be the indie breakouts and/or Oscar-caliber movies of the year. For me, it’s never better than when that initial buzz comes out of a film festival that Movie XYZ is going to floor me or leave me speechless. I’m super excited to hear that a new classic is on the horizon.

Then when I do see that movie, I am often left somewhat disappointed. They are almost always good but not great. Being merely good becomes not good enough, which is sort of ridiculous. I’ll give you a couple of examples. Gravity was supposed to automatically be one of my favorite movies of the year based on the buzz out of film festivals and early reviews. I saw it and was disappointed. I admired the special effects, but it was in my head the entire time that I didn’t think this was a GREAT movie. I had heard that Sandra Bullock was incredible, so the entire movie I was fixated on her performance. I could not let it wash over me. I was hyper-attuned to things like her facial expressions. When she’s spinning out into deep space and her facial expression isn’t more than wide eyed, I’m thinking in my head things like “Shouldn’t she look more panicked?” “Why is she so still?” etc. I couldn’t stop comparing her to someone like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, who is a much more facially expressive actor. As a result, I had a major problem with Bullock in Gravity; since she’s most of the show, the whole movie suffered as a result. I saw Gravity a second time and tried to accept it on its own terms. I liked it a little bit better, but I’m still not seeing the great movie that everyone else is. That’s not to say you are wrong if you think it’s a great movie. I just don’t get it the way most people do.
A second example is 12 Years a Slave. Based on the film festival buzz, this was supposed to be a movie that paralyzed me with emotion. I was supposed to be profusely sobbing and utterly moved when the end credits rolled. It was touted as the automatic Best Picture this year, without even needing to see anything else like The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustle. When I saw 12 Years a Slave, I thought it was good. It’s very good. It’s extremely effective. But I was disappointed. I wasn’t floored the way that most people were -- the reason being is because it’s exactly what I expected it to be. It had great (and brave) performances, upsetting subject matter and imagery and was extremely well-made technically. But there was no surprise or catharsis. It was a very good movie, maybe even a great movie, that didn’t hit the highest note because it never engaged me in a fresh or unexpected way.

Being a Jewish man, I have the same issue with most films dealing with the Holocaust. I don’t think you can present these stories in a straightforward way anymore. What is the point in telling Solomon Northup’s story in a straightforward manner without a director’s passionate point of view (I’m thinking someone like Oliver Stone or Spike Lee)? It’s like if someone you don’t know tells you an awful story and then asks you for a reaction. So, I see 12 Years a Slave and think “I’m so sorry. What Solomon Northup went through was awful. I’m feel terrible.” But I also think “How do you want me to react to this?” Was the purpose to wallow in grief? Are you showing this to me to remind me of societal atrocity so it doesn’t happen again? What is the purpose for you, the filmmaker, in wanting to tell this story? Not having an answer to this is what prevents me from being moved by the film like festival audiences were and makes an otherwise solid movie somewhat disappointing.
So how can I adjust my expectations to movies that are supposed to be the best of breed for the year?
I think the answer lies in judging them based on the director’s filmography. To show you what I mean, I've compiled a list of 11 movies that Oscar bloggers are predicting will be the most likely Best Picture nominees:

12 Years a Slave (Seen)

Director: Steve McQueen

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Hunger, Shame

What I should have expected: McQueen’s previous work are movies that are very well-made and strongly acted, but also leave me emotionally cold because they are clinical and lacking in a director’s strong point of view.

What I got from 12 Years a Slave:  An extremely well-made and strongly acted movie that kind of left me cold.

American Hustle (Have not seen)

Director: David O. Russell

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook
What I should expect: I should love American Hustle because I have loved O. Russell’s last two movies which I find more populist, warm and streamlined than his more audacious early work.

Blue Jasmine (Seen)

Director: Woody Allen
Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Too many to list

What I should have expected: It could either be great or a bear to get through. Woody Allen is completely unpredictable.
What I got from Blue Jasmine: One of Allen’s movies that I strongly responded to and would love to watch again.

Captain Phillips (Seen)

Director: Paul Greengrass

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum, Green Zone

What I should have expected: A movie that I want to like more than I actually like due to Greengrass’ stylistic choices and curious decision making.

What I got from Captain Phillips: A huge shock. I really liked Captain Phillips. This is the first time a Greengrass movie hasn’t left me with a bunch of gripes.

Gravity (Seen)

Director: Alfonso Cuaron

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men

What I should have expected: A movie that I like but do not adore as much as most people do.
What I got from Gravity: A movie that I appreciated but don’t like as much as similar space epics like Apollo 13 and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Her (Have not seen)
Director: Spike Jonze

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where the Wild Things Are

What I should expect: A movie that I should love but, to me, is too clever by half and ends up being something I intellectually appreciate more than emotionally connect with.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Have not seen)

Director: The Coen Brothers

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Too many to list

What I should expect: I might like it or I might hate it, just like my reaction to every other Coen Brothers movie. I love Fargo and really liked No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man, but I had a lot of trouble with other highly lauded movies of theirs including True Grit and Blood Simple.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (Seen)

Director: Lee Daniels

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Shadowboxer, Precious, The Paperboy
What I should have expected: It could either be very powerful or an utter disaster.

What I got from Lee Daniels’ The Butler: An emotionally affecting and well-acted drama.

(Have not seen)

Director: Alexander Payne

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants
What I should expect: At the very least something I find interesting and at best, a movie that is very funny with characters I end up caring a lot about.

Saving Mr. Banks
(Have not seen)

Director: John Lee Hancock

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: The Rookie, The Blind Side

What I should expect: Syrupy hokum that makes me want to puke.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Have not seen)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Other movies from the director that I’ve seen: Too many to list

What I should expect: A ton of stuff that I should appreciate, including exemplary filmmaking techniques, strong performances and a character study told in a very cinematic fashion.
So there you have it. I am looking forward to seeing if my expectation management approach will work. It has so far with Ender’s Game and Thor: The Dark World. My next awards movie test will be with Nebraska. At the very least, I’m looking forward to seeing most of these movies more now with the new frame of reference not dependent on fanboy hype or awards season prognostication.

How about you? Have you been feeling the same way about blockbusters and award season movies? How do you go into movies with a lot of hype or expectations around them?


  1. I more or less came to the same realizations in my "The Endless Franchise Revisted" column this past May, and that was BEFORE every summer movie reminded me that I'm old and they don't need me. Here we are, six months later, and I'm still really struggling with the fact that most mainstream movies aren't for me anymore, but still wanting to enjoy them as much as I can. it's been tough. I remember when I was younger and I loved so much of what was coming out. Now, things are totally reversed. Most of what's coming out really bums me out. I'm no fun at parties anymore because people know I like movies and want to talk to me about them, but I seem to always be raining on people's parade because they love practically everything.

    Expectation seems to be the hardest thing for me to manage. I can't help getting excited about certain things, and then they burn me. When I'm apathetic about a movie, sometimes it works out. The movies I've enjoyed the most this year are the ones that blindsided me because I just didn't care either way. But how do you train yourself not to care? By nature, we love movies, and we invest ourselves into every aspect of them.

    1. Hear both you and Adam on your comments about expectations. I'd like to add one more component to managing expectations, which Adam indirectly alludes to: objectivity. I think all of us who love movies often get our objectivity compromised, which is fine, really, because we're talking about our preferences and passions. But, I know that I find myself getting overly caught up in trying to figure out whether I like or dislike something that I lose my train of thought in understanding the story. I have to remember not to lose my objectivity in trying to figure what the movie is trying to do in the first place. So, I avoid reading articles ahead of time for movies I find interesting. I don't mind watching trailers, but I avoid watching them more than once. It's a lot of fun going in as "fresh" as possible (as hard as that might be nowadays).

    2. Sweet avatar. Must bring back memories.

  2. Agreed: it's all about expectations. For example, this last summer's movies.

    For the most part my expectations for every movie I see are exactly the same. I want to have a good time and be entertained, and I try to approach each movie on its own terms.

    Movies I had a great time with: Star Trek, Now You See Me, Pacific Rim, and This Is The End. (the latter two I have grown to love since getting the Blu-ray)

    Movies I straight-up loved the first time out: Iron Man 3, Furious 6, The Conjuring, You're Next, The World's End, and Man of Steel (I will never, ever understand the hatred for that movie).

    Pacific Rim was only a disappointment in that my inner 10 year old had somehow convinced me it would be the greatest movie ever made, which it was not. But it was a hell of a lot of fun, and revisiting it a few times at home, I'm positive it is almost exactly the flick GDT wanted to make, and I dig that movie.

    The only true disappointment of the summer for me was Elysium. It was good, with quite a bit to enjoy and/or recommend about it, but it didn't completely work for me. Not a failure, but not the home run I felt it coulda been.

    Overall, my expectations of "having a fun time" were more than met, in terms of my tastes and what I want out of movies.

  3. 2013 is the year I returned to the movie theatre experience and I have no regrets. "Happiness is the management of expectations" is a personal mantra of mine and I think it helped me have a really good time at the movies this year. Take Man of Steel for example. Here's what I EXPECTED: A Superman who really looked and sounded like my idea of Superman (i.e. not Brandon Routh - check!) and CGI that could realistically represent how Superman "works" (check!). Every other good thing was a bonus; the several bad things I could get over. Boom! Movie enjoyed.

    It is too bad that we can't EXPECT Blockbusters (in particular) to be great on a level other than visual spectacle but it really is a "like it or lump it" situation. Unfortunately in this instance I think "voting with our wallets" is only going to result in fewer movies not better ones, so it's just not worth drawing a line in the sand on this one. Be happy with what you got and don't dwell on with what you didn't OR become the crusty old fucker that shits on everything that happy people with low expectations (or the stupid) are enjoying. Frankly, as a non-American who is stunned by how batshit-crazy your country as a whole has been behaving (present company excepted of course) the past 10+ years, I'm surprised you're producing anything other than Grown Ups sequels, so we can be grateful for that at least!

    1. I'm all for adjusting one's expectations even if I'm not always the best at it (which is why a second viewing often improves a movie for me). But I feel like we can't LOWER our expectations so much that we become complacent if a movie delivers two or three things we "expect." I think it's great that you enjoyed Man of Steel and that it gave you what wanted (for real). I can't get past the script problems in that movie, and I feel like "story" is something that's getting tossed out the window in this discussion. It's the same issue I had with Star Trek Into Darkness and, more recently, Thor: The Dark World. There are fun sequences and everything, but if a movie can't tell a story I have a hard time buying in.

      None of this is directed at you, my Canadian brotha. Just wanted to introduce it into the discussion.

    2. Oh and I agree with you Patrick - Man of Steel is perhaps a bad example because I have such a long history of loving the character that I was happy just to see him fully realized in a physical sense - Superman's story is so ingrained in my consciousness that I was filling in the story myself and not missing it as much as I would in another movie (STID being a good example - though again, I told my brain to shut up and enjoy the ride). I should correct one thing you said - I didn't and wouldn't say Man of Steel gave me what I WANTED - it just gave me what I expected which (sadly) wasn't too much.

      To be clear, I'm not condoning the lack of good stories, I'm just resigned to it and yeah, complacent I guess - only because I'm not sure what putting up a resistance is going to accomplish other than having my love of movies tarnished with constant disappointments. Do you think there's enough of "us" to make a difference? The box office returns seem to suggest otherwise...

      Shit, I was trying to bring a let's be happy and "love the ones we're with" kinda attitude to this discussion, but I'm starting to feel like a sellout - thank god smoking crack is our new National Pastime, it always makes me feel better.

    3. Are you guys all REQUIRED to smoke crack now? Because that makes me a Canadian at heart. And at crack addiction.

      You have NOTHING to answer for, and any enjoyment you got out of Man of Steel is totally justified. There is no consensus as to what a movie "should" be, so everyone responds to different things and gets different stuff out of everything. Which is great.

      Honestly, the road I was going down is sort of off-topic anyway. And I don't want to turn the thread into a Man of Steel reevaluation. It's just being talked about again this week because of the DVD release, and I feel like the constant heated discussion ("BEST!" "WORST!") is about all the wrong stuff. I have a problem with all the destruction and death at the end on a personal level, but I don't think that's what's fundamentally wrong with the movie. No one is willing to talk about story anymore, not as long as there are good special effects or cool set pieces or if it looks like something else they've liked in the past. But the movie (for me) fails at the story level. Other stuff can be excused if the story works.

    4. Yeah, and I didn't mean to make it about MoS either (and I didn't think you were making me answer for enjoying it - you don't do that, that's why I love you almost as much as I love crack), I was just using it as an example of a movie where I've admittedly lowered my standards regarding story in the interest of enjoying the movie. I can't argue with the fact that MoS's (and several other of this year's big movies') story mostly doesn't work. That part is especially frustrating in the case of MoS because they did a good job setting up the foundation of a somewhat unique Superman story focusing on his alien-ness. And something like the destruction of Metropolis, which could have at least been made to serve the story, acts only as spectacle (or to provoke a 9/11-related emotional reaction). But see - now I'm letting my stupid MIND turn me against the movie...

      Hollywood has really put me (us) in a shitty position. My choice seems to be: (a) compromise my standards and try to have fun or (b) hold true to what I think makes movies great (story being one of, if not the, most important elements) and just stop watching most "blockbusters" (or watch and get bummed out).

      At the moment I'm going with (a) pretty much as a defense mechanism - I'd like to stand strong and reject the garbage Hollywood blockbusters try to force on me, but I feel like that would only be my loss. Is it okay to sell out and turn off my brain for the sake of some enjoyment? Is there an alternative to those two choices? Does Hollywood care about us anymore?

    5. I actually think that's a really healthy attitude, because it allows for the possibility of enjoying certain movies without losing sight of the fact that Hollywood is capable of better.

      And Hollywood only cares about us as much as we make them to care. When we make bad movies successful, it sends the message that we want more bad movies.

    6. My big problem with blockbusters' stories is that they are so damn convoluted. And that's a plot problem as opposed to a story one. Their stories aren't complicated but their plotting is so strenuous that it takes all of the fun out of it and they just seem busy.

      I would love to see more blockbusters take a character study approach.

    7. Well said. So many of the movies are all plot, no story.

    8. Yeah, I think that sums up my approach with a more positive spin - thanks!

      Re Hollywood caring - I just wonder if they care about the more discerning movie goer anymore and again this really applies mostly to big Summer movies - obviously there are lots of "smart" movies being made, but is there really any motivation for them to make blockbusters with really good stories? Or do they just know they have us by the balls and we're all going to go see the new Super/Bat/Spider/X/Ironman movie no matter what? And I shouldn't even just blame "Hollywood" - take Prometheus for a different example - lot of smart individuals working on that movie - how does it end up having so many ridiculous, easily avoidable, stupid story decisions in the first place? Is there something about the modern big movie-making process that no one involved can see the forest for the trees until it's all done and they just say fuck it and go with what they've got? Is it a matter of people being too afraid to bruise egos and tell guys like Ridley Scott that something is really stupid?

      I guess these are probably unanswerable questions - sorry for the rant, that's what happens when I turn my brain back on and start thinking about this shit!

  4. Surprised Dallas Buyer's Club wasn't on your list - "gays + AIDS + extreme actor weight-loss/gain" seems like a surefire Oscar equation! I'm going to an advanced screening next Monday so we'll see how it goes!

    1. Cool. Let me know what you think. I saw about 20 minutes of Dallas Buyers Club today but had to walk out (as I expected I would have to) because I get queasy at many disease movies.