Saturday, September 26, 2009

Is Hollywood in the Age of the Big Budget B-Movie?

Well, first out, what we need is to explain what is meant by the term “B-movie” here. Now, I use the term highly loosely here in terms of a movie which is thoroughly commercial, campy fair with little content whatsoever. The movie usually uses a theme or tool to exploit like the blaxploitation, the sexploitation, cannibal films etc. It is certainly not a reference to the B movies which involved a high degree of craft or ingenuity like some of the sci-fi movies of the 1950s etc. The main point of departure from the usual B-movie fare is that while such movies are a low budget fare, the movies I seek to discuss here aren’t. For a more detailed idea of B movies, kindly Wiki either “B Movie” and/or “Exploitation Films.”

A month back, I had the misfortune of watching Michael Bay’s latest offering “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” I know what is usually expected from a Michael Bay film: eye candy (in the form of women and special effects) and a bare plot for tying all the eye candy sequences together. Nevertheless, the sequel to the wildly successful “Transformers” was shocking in its shallowness and its pathetic excuse of a plot. Sure, the effects were eye-popping. But the entire film was just a (very) poor excuse for one set of special effects after another. It was an unashamed, headache inducing big budget extravaganza, and I mean that in the worst way possible. As I exited the theatre, a thought came to me: are we living in the age of the big budget B movie?

I immediately started collecting data on the big budget movies that Hollywood has churned out in the past few years. In several genres this trend to churn out trash that sells can be seen. However, by far the biggest bucks for the studios have been earned in either (a) sequels; (b) remakes; (c) comic book adaptations; (d) children’s books adaptations; (e) adventure / sci-fi epics. There is one factor that runs commonly between all of these categories: special effects/technology. Despite the sheer quantum of special effects visuals that have been generated over the last 20 years with the technology boom, viewers can’t seem to have enough of it. As a result of which, I think all of the abovementioned movies can be collectively clubbed in a newly emerged B movie sub-genre: texploitation i.e. movies that exploits technology to lure people into watching and making a box office killing.

While special effects have been exploited to sell a film to viewers since decades, it has become increasingly unashamed, crude and in-your-face (not to mention, almost fool proof and highly profitable) in recent years. Studios are willing to empty their coffers for a “Transformers.” Budgets have spiralled out of control. While not so long ago, betting $300 million on a Lord of the Rings franchise was a risky bet, today shelling out $200 million on one movie is really no big deal. Also, who cares if creativity in effects is lacking so long as it is bigger and better in every other movie: more destruction, more mayhem, more explosions, more detailing, these are enough to sell a movie. With globalisation, the international market for Hollywood movies has grown by leaps and bounds which has only proliferated such reckless budgeting further.

Look at the last few years. While the biggest grosser (worldwide) include an occasional “Lord of the Rings” and a rare “the Dark Knight” the list is abound with crap superhero/comic book adaptations like “X Men Origins: Wolverine,” “Spider Man 3,” “Hancock,” crappy book adaptations like the “Harry Potter” series, “The Da Vinci Code,” “Eragon” (which actually managed to gross $250 million worldwide), sequels like “Terminator: Salvation,” “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “At World’s End” and big budget disaster/epic movies like “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Troy” etc. The list goes on and on. The trend for this probably started out small with movies like “True Lies” (a respectable but nevertheless obvious big budget spoof of action films), “Independence Day” (campy but fun), “Armageddon” (crap, plain and simple) etc. But these were fewer in number then and better in entertainment quotient at least. Further, it is painful to see that “Star Trek” (arguably the most wildly entertaining sci-fi epic in recent years, certainly the best of the series) grossed only (relatively) $382 million worldwide while “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” (one of the most disappointing sequels ever made with all gloss and no content) grossed over $1 billion worldwide. Hence, the motivation for investing $150 million in a “Star Trek” is much lesser than investing $300 million in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”

What perpetuates this trend? I think we can single out two factors: first, the marketing people know that the audiences are a sucker for visuals and play on that to hype a film. I mean, the visuals of “2012” really blew me away. I know the movie will be crap, I mean its Roland Emmerich. But the effects are gorgeous. Secondly, they often throw in either a good actor or a hot actor or both for good measure. Megan Fox worked wonders for “Transformers” and herself in the process. “2012” has John Cusack, an odd choice which is intriguing nevertheless. Secondly, of course, is the fact that the audiences are willing to buy into that hype and waste good money on such movies. Of course, this is not to say all is lost. Texploitation has been used advantageously in many movies to make memorable films. The best example I can think of is “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” which took special effects to a whole new level without sacrificing on the quality of the story itself. But it is true that such movies today are few and getting fewer every year. Word of advice: don’t buy into the packaging. Don't perpetuate this trend!

Friday, September 25, 2009


Apologies for the delay in updating the blog. I have been swamped with work and haven't been able to watch too many movies, at least none interesting! So I started toying with a new idea which required a fair amount of background work. Hence, the delay. There are two posts in the pipeline, at least one of which will be up soon!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Taking a Walk along Revolutionary Road

Recently, I had the absolute privilege of watching Sam Mendes’ latest work “Revolutionary Road.” Arguably his most mature work to date, it is embellished with superlative performances by Michael Shannon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Coming together after over 10 years after the unforgettable (for better or for worse) Titanic, it is a delight to watch the two actors in roles which are a far cry from their Jack & Rose act. Seeing them one realises how much both have grown as actors over the years. 2008 was clearly a great year for Kate Winslet with her stunning performances in “The Reader” and this one. She is unarguably the best female actor of her generation. Here, she is at her boldest best and delivers an unrestrained and powerful performance.

Coming to the movie itself, while it starts off slow and it takes a while for the viewer to get involved or really care, Sam Mendes deserves kudos for delivering a movie that is, ultimately, gut wrenching in its emotional impact. Do not, even for a second expect the idyllic world of “Happy Days” or even the comic relief or the optimism Mendes’ “American Beauty.” Revolutionary Road is a raw, painful and stark portrait of the realities of a suburban couple in the US in the 1950s. The adaptation of the John Yates novel is well written, wonderfully shot and extremely well enacted. The bright, colourful and picturesque frames are juxtaposed well with the darkness of its characters and their tale. The characters are very well developed over the two hours of runtime and the conclusion of the movie left me numb for the longest time.

However, I quickly found myself drawing comparisons to the movies which were actually made in the 1950s on similar issues. Particularly, I was increasingly drawing parallels between “Revolutionary Road” and Nicholas Ray’s iconic “Rebel without a Cause,” a culturally significant film that raised more questions than it answered. While “Rebel without a Cause” presented the problem, it could not (or did not) explain or rationalise it, let alone provide an answer or solution. However, “Revolutionary Road” owing to, I think, its retrospective look at the 1950s, displays a greater sense of awareness of the problems of life in the American suburbs then. It captures the sexism and the frustrations of the time and its people. Its sense of self-awareness is perhaps best embodied in the character of Michael Shannon who understands more than he lets on. No one wants to listen to him because no one wants to know the truth. In that sense, his character is somewhat similar to that of James Dean who embodied the confusion of “Rebel without a Cause.” He saw things: the peer pressure in school, the messy relations at home, but he didn’t understand how and why. Moreover, no one helped him understand and that drove him nuts. Here, it’s Michael Shannon’s character’s willingness to speak out the truth and the repression that is forced upon him that makes him unstable. The two characters are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. However, they both embody the central point that the movies are trying to make. The self-awareness of “Revolutionary Road” is inevitable. However, Sam Mendes’ confident direction and an author-backed script help avoid reducing this self-awareness to a set of clich├ęs.

Overall, “Revolutionary Road” is a deceptively quiet little film that is powerful and resonates for a long time after it’s over.