Wednesday, August 11, 2010
ZOMG U GUISE! EXISTENTIAL CRISIS!
Normally, trying to predict box-office results is a gigantic waste of time. The only way it's not is if you actually are a movie studio. Ordinarily, I would completely dismiss the whole enterprise—the only reason I care about how much money a picture makes is its career implications for my favorite directors—except for the fact that occasionally, audiences will be like “Oh, I don't want to go to this picture, it's flopping,” like when Fight Club was in theaters and despite being both wildly entertaining and having something interesting to say politically, people bought into Joe Lieberman's whole Columbine-inspired crusade to cut Hollywood's balls off and the picture would have flopped (and David Fincher would have been through) if it hadn't miraculously turned a profit on DVD.
Columbine was already awful enough. The two jerkoffs responsible ended up trivializing a very real problem in American culture—the relentless bullying of those who do not fit by those who do—and gave people a new reason to harass weirdos, thereby exacerbating the problem. But, because politicians do not understand outsider culture (because the only people who have ever or will ever win elected office are insiders to some degree or other), the way they decided to fix this problem was by making the entertainment industry “police itself” or something. Since Hollywood is a market-driven business, a whole lot of fretting ensued, and the fact that interesting, transgressive pictures had been making healthy profits for the entire decade went out the window in a scared desire to prove to Middle America that “hey, we're not sick and depraved! And those Columbine psychos, it was their fault!”
A decade later, the movie business is in its usual state: neither unacceptably awful nor incongruously awesome. This year in particular has been an interesting one, featuring any number of sequels, cash-ins, and the usual exasperating bullshit, but the odd really interesting picture (like Inception, and a couple kinda cool things at the art houses). This coming weekend, something that used to happen a lot but that I honestly cannot remember the last time it did is looming: two pictures I really want to see are coming out at the same time.
This raises an interesting question: when did Hollywood studios stop competing with each other? Counter-programming—putting out a “chick” picture the same weekend as a “dude” picture—is fucking retarded because it assumes that no chicks want to see dude pictures and no dudes want to see chick pictures; granted the former is a lot more common than the latter, but still. This coming weekend's head-to-head seems like counter-programming, and it's probably a mark of my otherness that I feel like either could have been made personally for me. But let's look at the situation a little more carefully:
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: dir. Edgar Wright, starring Michael Cera, a couple cute girls, and a bunch of handsome dickheads.
Wherein Scott Pilgrim (Cera) has a fairly mundane problem—dealing with his new girlfriend's dating history—turn comic-book epic end-of-the-world life-or-death on him, as he has to battle her Seven Evil Exes, who are all better looking and more confident than he is, all of whom can beat the living shit out of him unless he musters some inner strength or something. I don't know, I haven't seen the picture yet.
While the premise certainly isn't irredeemable or anything, the main attractions here are Edgar Wright and Michael Cera, both of whom are nerd gods. Edgar Wright's resume is short and to the point: Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz. He knows nerds. He is a nerd. He's a very talented director with a rare ability to balance subtlety with over the top orgasmic geek-out. Scott Pilgrim marks his first foray into a world where Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are no longer there to be awesome, though Michael Cera is definitely of that phylum.
And Michael Cera, despite teetering on the brink of overexposure from having seemingly done the same picture where he shyly romances the cute hipster girl about twenty-five times in a row (even though it's really only three), is finally breaking out of the mold in a very smart way, since he's still shyly romancing the cute hipster girl, except now instead of a bunch of twee faggots with acoustic guitars on the soundtrack providing the only dramatic tension, he faces the threat of people like Chris Evans frat-douche-ily stomping the shit out of him. This bodes well, and the inevitable triumphant third-act table-turning when Michael Cera grows a pair and kicks ass cannot but be one of the funniest fucking things you or I will ever see.
Therein lies the appeal for me. A picture where the nerds get one over on the handsome douchebags who get all the girls is one that will always have an audience of at least yours truly. Even though, fortunately, I'm no longer as awkward as I was in high school (and, let's be real, college, and, let's be more real, my mid 20s) part of me will always identify with the underdog nerd. Although Michael Cera, as the skinny, stuffed-into-locker variety of nerd, is of a slightly different stripe than my hulking and brooding, he's still my people. And I thus support any enterprise that involves Michael Cera hooking up with hot girls. It'll take some of the sting out of never getting to nail Maeby Fünke.
The Expendables: dir. Sly, starring Sly and just about everybody with balls except Danny Trejo.
Of course, this has an entirely different appeal. Back in the 80s when men were men and extras were filled with holes, action movies were not something “real” actors did in between Oscar-bait roles as gay retards with leukemia. Action movies were something you did if you were the personal trainer for one of those “real” actors and had a shapely, steroidal figure.
I've always respected Sly more than I actually like most of his pictures; my favorite things he's done are the sort of things his big fans tend to hate, like Tango & Cash and Demolition Man. I've never seen any of the Rambo movies and only the first Rocky movie, and swear up and down til I'm blue in the face that the best picture he ever did was Nighthawks, which in spite of having Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer (and Joe Spinell!) in it somehow managed to slip through the cracks of history.
This, though, is different. The Expendables has one of the most impressive arrays of large, gruff voiced dudes ever. There's Sly, as the head of a team of ass-kickers for hire or something, who has a summit with Arnold and Bruce Willis which results in Sly and retinue going out and blowing shit up. Who needs details? It's Sly, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Terry Crews, Steve Austin, Randy Couture, and ericrobertsandmickeyrourke *cough cough*.
Now, of course, I want to see this, but I'm resisting for a couple reasons. One is that big-budget homages to low-budget movies (lookin at you, Grindhouse) tend to miss the point and, by the very fact of having more than $1.50 are a totally different kind of picture. Real low-budget action movies have the one guy on steroids in the lead, the one girl no one's ever heard of before who's kind of cute but can't act, the one drunk character actor phoning it in and hamming it up as the villain for that fall's rent, the one other big muscular dude as the villain's number one henchman, and a wise-cracking sidekick (who was sometimes also muscular).
The second reason is that the example I'm about to use of the aesthetic purity of that template is not in The Expendables: Jean-Claude Van Damme. As readers of the Bordeaux, France/Seattle, WA based zine Louis Liard are aware, I am the world's foremost authority on Jean-Claude Van Damme, the king of kings in low-budget action cinema. Genetic engineering could not have produced a better low-budget action star than Jean-Claude Van Damme. He had very large muscles. His near-complete inability to speak English made his acting seem shitty (though, as we discovered in the brilliant, revelatory JCVD, he actually can act). And he kept it simple. Let us take, as an example, Double Impact:
1---Leading man on steroids? Check, times two: Van Damme plays twins
2---Girl no one's ever heard of who's kind of cute but can't act? Meh, the blond can't act but she isn't attractive, ditto the “lesbian” working for the villain.
3---Drunk character phoning it in/hamming it up? Again, slight departure; Geoffrey Lewis isn't the villain, but he sure is drunk and screwing around. Philip Chan, though, HOLY SHIT is he hamming it up, and you can smell the Remy Martin on that dude's breath.
4---Other big muscular dude? Bolo motherfuckin Yeung. The only reason this dude wasn't the biggest fucking superstar in the fucking world was racism; it was always barely plausible that Van Damme could kick his ass. I submit Bolo could have killed Arnold. Yes, that's right, and I'll say it again so there's no ambiguity. Bolo could have fucking killed Arnold. And, don't get me wrong, I love Jean-Claude Van Damme, I love Arnold, but why can't a Chinese guy be big, muscular, not be able to speak English and star in a movie? Huh? Riddle me that, Menachem Golan.
5---Wisecracking sidekick? Not applicable, but let's take Bloodsport as an example—Ogre was fucking great in that as Jean-Claude's wisecracking sidekick, who multitasked as a big muscular dude, and the crippled/dead friend JC has to avenge, only being Ogre he's enough of a badass that he recovers from Bolo crushing his skull within days and is drinking beer like nothing ever happened. Completely irrelevant to the discussion at hand, but Ogre was fucking awesome in Bloodsport.
Now, Sly isn't a retard. In fact, in the discussions here regarding Tango & Cash and Victory, I reiterated several times that Sly is, to the contrary, rather intelligent. Sly offered Jean-Claude Van Damme a part in The Expendables. But Jean-Claude Van Damme turned it down, I guess out of an ascetic loyalty to the purity of low-budget action cinema or something (JC is fuckin weird), thereby putting Sly in the awkward position of, due to circumstances completely beyond his control, being unable to perfectly make the all-star team kind of picture he wanted to. Of course, holding that against him would be ridiculous, and I won't do it.
Sly's mistake that he didn't have to make, and that I will hold against him, is cutting Danny Trejo out of the picture (AFTER PUTTING HIM ON THE MOTHERFUCKING POSTER). It's very simple. You cannot make any kind of definitive cinematic statement about anything male without Danny Trejo being involved. Anything testicular with which Danny Trejo is not involved needs to be compared to Danny Trejo. Those stupid Dos Equis ads would be awesome if Danny Trejo were in them, because he is that guy. So what the fuck, Sly? First you cast Danny Trejo, then you decide to merge his character with either Eric Roberts or Mickey Rourke (I forget which)? This is utterly unacceptable, and should have been decided with a bare-knuckle boxing match, which prison boxing champion Danny Trejo would have won, and ended up playing both Eric Roberts' and Mickey Rourke's roles. Sure, Eric Roberts matured into a pretty cool reptile, but Mickey Rourke has looked like fuckin Rocky Dennis for about 20 years now, and the whole point to Mickey Rourke was that he was good-looking. Even in his prime, a half-asleep Danny Trejo with one leg chainsawed off by Mickey Rourke's wisecracking sidekick would fucking destroy him.
But, still. Even if it's imperfect and exempt from the grand tabulation of Statements on Masculinity due to one annoying violation of the statutes, it should be a hell of a lot of fun. Thus presenting the dilemma: The Expendables or Scott Pilgrim? For me, the answer is moot, since I'm going to be spending the weekend reviewing plays for nytheatre.com and trying to have production meetings for a movie I'm directing the end of the month (many self-indulgent plugs to come). But if I were to go to something this weekend, it would probably end up being The Expendables, even if it came down to a coin flip. I have the feeling Scott Pilgrim will benefit from a DVD-and-a-joint viewing at home more than a see-it-in-the-theater-completely-straight experience. Of course, I could be wrong, and probably am.
And, for the biggest question, the one I care the least about: which will be #1 at the box office? Neither. Eat, Pray, Love is going to gross $40 mil. (EDIT: 40 million rubles, maybe. See what I mean about box office predictions being fucking stupid?)