Art Vs Commerce: Oscar Bait and Endgames (2010s)

2014

If The Artist taught us anything, it’s that the Academy loves a good gimmick. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a movie he spent 12 years filming and a cumulative 30 minutes writing, had a splashy gimmick, but no substance. Another film managed to have a gimmick and talk about art and the movies while being an intense character piece, and we know the voters love those.

Also welcome back, Michael Keaton, we missed you.

And The Oscar Goes To…

SUCK IT, BOYHOOD

Riggan Thomson, an actor famous for playing a superhero in the 90s (played by Michael Keaton, famed for playing a superhero in 89/92, brilliant), has been in a career slump since leaving his character Birdman behind, and is trying to launch a revival with a play on Broadway. This play faces several major hurdles: his best friend and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) is scrambling to find the money; his co-star Mike Shiner is talented but a nightmare to work with (Edward Norton as a satirical version of himself); he’s struggling to connect with his recovering addict daughter Sam (Emma Stone); a theatre critic (Lindsay Duncan) seems out to sink him for thinking of the stage as a place for film stars to hang out for easy cred; and Birdman keeps whispering in his ear that he’s above this and is supposed to be in blockbuster films.

And you might think that the seemingly almost autobiographical stunt casting of Michael Keaton or the film vs theatre theme is the gimmick but no, that’s not it. Alejandro G. Iñárritu films the entire thing to simulate one, constant, unbroken shot, save for the very top and a bit near the very end. Not the first or the last film to use this trick (it’s even an episode of The X-Files), but used very differently here. Iñárritu isn’t trying to convey the story in real time, we’re often jumping forward in time, but the story is still given a sense of constant flow. There are no breaks or pauses as we hurtle through the disastrous previews towards Riggan’s opening night. It’s very effective, and the lack of any obvious cuts in any scene lend intensity to several scenes.

It’s not just a love letter to the theatre, mind you. Theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson’s gatekeeping of Broadway as a place too important for the likes of Riggan to take up space is the movie’s biggest villain moment. Shiner says that “Popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige,” but Birdman counters “People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit.” Which… okay, maybe we shouldn’t be taking anything Riggan’s delusions say at face value, but it’s backed up by the moment where every prestige actor Riggan wants in his play is busy with a popcorn movie:

Riggan: Just find me an actor. A good actor. Give me Woody Harrelson.
Jake: He’s doing the next Hunger Games.
Riggan: Michael Fassbender?
Jake: He’s doing the prequel to the X-Men prequel.
Riggan: How about Jeremy Renner?
Jake: Who?
Riggan: Jeremy Renner. He was nominated. He was the Hurt Locker guy.
Jake: Oh, okay. He’s an Avenger.
Riggan: Fuck, they put him in a cape too?

And I don’t know that there’s any harsher indictment than Sam’s attack on the idea that this play is something “important.” “You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over.” She delivers a blistering speech, and when it’s done, the camera stays on Stone’s closeup as she begins to realize how hurtful it just was. Within the single-take illusion, Iñárritu finds a lot of different camera techniques: hard close-ups for emotional moments, slow pans during time jumps, a quiet shot of an empty hallway while preview goes on below, swooping effects shots of giant bird robots and firefights and Riggan flying through Manhattan.

Now this movie does hinge on you being invested in Riggan’s arc, his need to feel important, his terror over not mattering, despite Sam’s highly effective speech about why it’s a fool’s crusade for someone who won’t even touch social media (that’s one small piece of the speech but it’s relevant), or his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) laying out his inability to separate love from adoration.

And Raymond Chandler’s What We Talk about When We Talk about Love was a perfect choice for the play within the movie, as the themes of love and needing to be worthy of it (also a possible pregnancy) bleed through Riggan’s arc.

It’s the exact sort of actor showcase the Academy loves, but it’s engaging and very clever from a technical perspective. Sure it has a gimmick but unlike Boyhood or releasing Justice League in black and white for some dumb reason, the gimmick here serves the story rather than just… existing. Or in the case of Boyhood existing instead of a story. I didn’t like Boyhood. I don’t know if that’s clear.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at number 19. Top 20, if only just. Under Annie Hall, over The Artist. So a very gimmicky section of the list.

Where did I rank it? It’s 25th, honestly lower than I expected, but feels largely right now? Second highest of that year, though, only behind Whiplash. “An excellent high-wire act about a man’s attempts to stay relevant, centred around amazing performances from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton (as every theatre nightmare anyone’s ever had), and Emma Stone.”

What was I rooting for? We are now at a point in history where I was ranking the nominees on the blog every year. And of the 2014 nominees, I was fully team Birdman. Though I eventually shifted to team Whiplash.

So that’s how Alejandro G. Iñárritu pandered a little to the Academy to win out in a year when his only competition should have been Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Now let’s talk about pandering to audiences, and how it can boost some bad, bad movies.

The Box Office Champ (International)

At the end of an already too-long movie, the action shifts to Hong Kong, because Hollywood has noticed that the Chinese love to have some Asia content in a Hollywood blockbuster. And clearly it worked, because we haven’t gotten into Transformers at all in the project, but what finally made the list? The longest and worst one, as an international champ. I have to assume that’s because they learned to pander to the Asian markets.

Look, I already watched this last spring as a Plague Time Pop Culture Suicide Pact (one participant in that pact still owes us two Wolverine movies), and it’s irrational to ask me to watch the longest, worst Transformers again when I wrote all my thoughts down on this very blog, but if you need a refresher here’s what I had to say.

“This is the absolute grimmest movie in the whole goddamn franchise, and it’s also the longest, and wow but those two things are a terrible, terrible combination. It’s this long because there are too many villains. There’s Cemetery Wind (1), a CIA black ops group controlled by Kelsey Grammer and led in the field by Titus Welliver, and they are assholes, who have decided that after the sacking of Chicago last time there are no good Transformers so are hunting them all down… with the help of an evil Transformer bounty hunter (2), and nobody explains to them that working with evil Transformers and selling out the Autobots is how Chicago happened in the first place. They sell the corpses of the Transformers they kill to tech billionaire Joshua Joyce (3), played by Stanley Tucci, who uses their metal to build his own Transformers, but they aren’t under his control like he thinks, because Megatron’s consciousness is still very alive and is now in control of his prototype, Galvatron (4), and through him, the whole fleet of what is now nouveau-Decepticons. That’s too many villains, and the only one that even slightly works is Joyce, because once he is Changed and realizes he’s on the wrong side, Tucci becomes the best part of the whole movie. Anyway it’s a big, bleak mess, and replacing Shia’s manchild afraid of losing his various supermodel girlfriends with Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager, an older manchild afraid his daughter might Date a Boy, is a lateral move at best. But after watching how they treated Sam in Dark of the Moon I cannot blame Shia for not wanting to come back ever. That said… maybe Cade’s right to be overprotective, because there is nothing positive about a character who keeps a laminated card of the state’s age of consent laws with him at all times so he can prove his relationship with a teen girl is legal, and that 100% happens.

“There’s also a subplot about the creator of the Transformers being after Optimus Prime, and other elder Transformers who turn out to be the Dinobots (too little too late), but it’s all clearly there to be paid off in future movies and adds nothing to this one but extra time. And Dinobots.

“It’s the worst one, I hate it.”

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: An abysmal 17% from critics, and a meager 50% from audiences, this movie is garbage. And not even fun garbage, it’s just a punishment.

And yet it still made $1.1 billion worldwide, despite only making $245 million domestic for a seventh-place finish, barely higher than Maleficent. So clearly pandering to China works, but how does one pander for box office dollars here at home? Well, like this.

The Box Office Champ (Domestic)

Last time, when I touched on The Passion of the Christ, I mentioned how sometimes people throw money at something to feel like they’re winning a culture war. No saying only one side does it, but one side certainly does it more, which is why being a right-wing mouthpiece is such a lucrative grift. Fox News and similar outlets have so brainwashed their audience into thinking they’re at war with the lib socialists out to turn their country into Stalinist Venezuela that these right-wing rubes will hurl money at anything they think might stick it to the libs. Say the Left has besmirched your brand of fried chicken just because you contribute to hate groups and the rubes will line up to eat your chicken in order to hit back. Say the Left is trying to cancel you because you call ’em like you see ’em and the rubes will hurl money they might not have at your Kickstarter or GoFundMe or merch for your “Tell it like it is” stand-up comedy show about how the Woke Police won’t let you tell jokes. People attempted to overthrow the government because a proven habitual liar barely able to form coherent sentences made up some cockamamie story about how the only reason he could have lost an election after bungling the greatest public heath crisis in living memory is that the other side cheated.

I picked the wrong industries, I tell ya. There is so much money in grifting conservatives.

Enter Clint Eastwood with a biopic of a Navy sniper, using the “American plus noun” title format to make it seem super patriotic.

Chris Kyle was a sniper called by some the “deadliest sniper in US history,” and by others (me for one) as “the writer of his own press releases.” He was known to make up stories of daring-do at home and abroad, and according to the Navy his official kill count is maybe half of what he claimed. And you know what this doesn’t merit a full synopsis, let’s just dig into what it claimed to do, why it failed at all of that, what it was actually trying to do, and why that’s bad.

Yes in one scene Kyle’s baby daughter is an obviously fake plastic doll and that’s jarring but goddamn, that should not be anyone’s main issue with this movie, that’s Cinema Sins nonsense compared to my main issues.

First: depicting Kyle as a hero. His origin story, his inciting incidents, are terrorist attacks, but his entire service is in Iraq. They claim that these things are connected, and they are not. Kyle insists that he’s protecting his country and his family, and that if they don’t fight here, the enemy might come to America, and none of that is true. No matter what Kyle claims, he’s not fighting terror, he’s not defending his country, he’s part of a war started with a lie and continued with stubbornness. They justify all he does, abandoning his family, killing dozens of men and women, opening the movie with him shooting a child in the heart, by painting the enemy as “evil,” and it’s a lie. Every way they claim Kyle is a hero is tainted by the lie at its heart, and anyway half of it is made up,

It fabricates nearly half the story, giving him credit for things he didn’t do, putting him in incidents he wasn’t involved in, giving him two nemeses: a terrorist leader called “The Butcher,” who did not exist, and a rival sniper called Mustafa who apparently did but was a minimal character in Kyle’s memoir and was not killed in a sniper duel with Kyle. And I know, I know that I just said when talking Argo that movies bend the truth to make their climax more exciting and that’s fine, but this movie’s need to have a hero/villain duel completely undermines Kyle as a noble soldier.

In one of his early tours, Kyle decides that he’s of more use helping marines knock down doors to find the Butcher than manning his overwatch post, the thing that made him a famous soldier, and this is played as a noble decision. I am no military expert, but I think they take a dim view of abandoning your post willy-nilly. And what intel gained by Kyle’s raid is lost two scenes later, as the Butcher is able to kill their informant because Mustafa actually stayed in his post, Chris, so they had sniper support. Kyle finally wins his rivalry with Mustafa, but in so doing, reveals his squad’s location and nearly gets all of them killed. But while the CO complains, Kyle’s pal is nothing but congratulations for finishing the mission.

He spends the movie calling Iraqis “savages,” spouting lies about the purpose of the war, and so I can’t relate to him, connect to him, root for him. I think he’s a self-promoter known to invent stories of valour and nothing in this movie makes me think he’s a hero.

Second… Eastwood and star/producer Bradley Cooper (who I normally like, but this movie…) claim that it’s about the people left behind: the families back home, the soldiers struggling with PTSD. To which I say poppycock. Kyle’s wife is even less of a character than his squadmates, barely more so than his nemeses. Whenever someone admits to being battle weary, Kyle treats it as their personal failure. The first of his squad to die wrote a note about how he was struggling, and Kyle blames his death on having written the note. Again, this is our protagonist, our POV character, the filter through which we experience this story, and the only trauma he will admit to or considers valid is that being home means he’s not still protecting his fellow troops, because after all no one else could do that. It demeans PTSD, portrays family as just something between Kyle and his duty, and plays that damned idiot “People back home are always on their phones” card I hate.

Also he was killed by a soldier with PTSD who was on trial for the killing when this movie came out.

Ultimately the point of this movie was to give the Iraq war its own Captain America, or at least a Sergeant York. That’s why it sticks Kyle into situations and fights he had no part of, because he needs to be a larger than life inspirational hero when the real man likely earned none of that. For Chris Kyle was no Alvin York, no Alvin York at all. He was racist at best, a war criminal at worst, and maybe, maybe, an endless war started for a lie just doesn’t have a hero. Maybe there is no good or bad in that fight. The US soldiers deployed there aren’t inherently good, locals fighting the invaders aren’t automatically bad, and claiming otherwise is propaganda pure and simple.

Also for a movie about a sniper it seems to have no idea how snipers actually function in combat. Hurt Locker did it better. Hell, Bones, the show about a bone doctor named Bones who solves bone crimes, knew more about military sniping than this movie.

But it worked. Thanks in part to an Oscar Season release strategy, with a limited release at Christmas (without which I could have been talking Guardians of the Galaxy) then wide release when there was no competition, as invented by The Deer Hunter. Between that and red state rubes buying the terrible, deceitful message, American Sniper became the highest grossing war movie of all time (I assume not counting inflation).

And it shouldn’t be. This movie is beyond simply bad, it is actively evil. It celebrates racism against the Iraqis, falsely conflates the Iraq war with any sort of action against terrorism, invents villains to make a pointless war seem noble. All Quiet on the Western Front said war was terrible for all involved at a time when “shell shock” was seen as cowardice. The Hurt Locker had a superior take on a man’s inability to leave the war, and didn’t paint it as heroic virtue. Sergeant York profiled a better man. Patton admitted its subject had flaws. Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day were about a war that meant something. American Sniper does not belong in their company. It belongs next to Triumph of the Will or The Is The Army. And at least This Is The Army had a couple decent jokes.

American Sniper is part of an ugly trend: movies depicting real-life incidents that happened too recently to have been fully understood or unpacked. It’s not a Clint Eastwood thing specifically, he’s more into biopics about people whose big moment lasted maybe two minutes like Sully, but there are a lot. It’s why I dread the possibility that someone’s making a movie about the Jan. 6th insurrection. What perspective could we have on that yet?

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 72% from critics and 84% from audiences, both far too high. I would make some comment about “I’d rather rewatch Age of Extinction” but… well… obviously that’s not true because this is the one I rewatched, so…

Where did I rank it? Yes, sadly this trashpile was the Academy’s token attempt to include a hit that year, so it got a nomination. I have it dead last at 89. “Releasing a movie connecting the war in Iraq to the war on terror, celebrating a man who kills brown people while calling them ‘savages,’ while the man who killed said lead character was still on trial for that killing, was criminally irresponsible. Also it’s not good.”

Wow. Around 1600 words on this garbage movie. Time to move on. But that said… this was the last year the Box Office Champ wasn’t owned by Disney until the pandemic hits. Having acquired both Marvel and Lucasfilm, and with Pixar still doing big money, Disney tended to have most of the Top Ten Box Office in recent years. The Empire of Joy is now at full power.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Superheroes: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is still seen as one of Marvel’s best; Guardians of the Galaxy brought writer/director James Gunn to the A-list, and not a moment too soon; Disney Animation gets into superheroes with Big Hero 6; Amazing Spider-Man 2 drowns in sequel teases with no decent plots to keep it afloat; X-Men: Days of Future Past combined the original and prequel casts, giving the Stewart/McKellan era cast a swansong while keeping the McAvoy/Fassbender era party going. And also managed to hinge the whole thing on Wolverine.
  • This was the year I turned on Great Man Biopics as a genre, as I find Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game to be largely pointless movies just trying to get Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch an Oscar. At least Selma was better.
  • Like Harry Potter and Twilight before it, Hunger Games split its final book, Mockingjay, into two movies to keep the cash cow going just a little longer.
  • Phil Lord and Chris Miller make The Lego Movie way, way better than it had any right to be. They also did 22 Jump Street this year. They are good at making hilarious movies out of concepts that seem empty.
  • Thanks to a crowdsourcing campaign funded by loyal fans… loyal, clever, handsome fans with great opinions about Oscar movies… Veronica Mars came to the big screen.
  • The MonsterVerse begins with Godzilla. May it return soon.
  • Edge of Tomorrow combines sci-fi action with Groundhog Day time loops. It should have done better than it did.
  • The Purge: Anarchy actually does something interesting with the concept of The Purge.
  • There are duelling Hercules movies. Somehow the one from Brett Ratner that claims Hercules was a huckster who made all the god and monster stuff up is the better one?
  • With The Expendables 3, Stallone decides that his over-the-top 80s action tribute franchise needs to be PG-13. It bombs. I don’t know there’s a connection there, but also don’t I?
  • The Maze Runner and Divergent try to be the next Hunger Games. They’re not, but they do… okay. Maze Runner even made it to the last book.
  • Denzel Washington stars in a remake of 80s action series The Equalizer. Which, like Person of Interest, involves an ex-elite soldier going after villains to protect the innocent, which is so my jam, I have watched Denzel’s The Equalizer like four or five times, he equalizes so many bad guys and it’s awesome, and I now watch the new Equalizer with Queen Latifah. It even uses “equalize” as a verb, just like I do!

Next Page: The Power of Nostalgia

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