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unreasonable drought
film in the season of the rich
by mike julianelle
12.19.01
pop culture


The manner in which the film industry rations out its quality product is so frustrating that it borders on sadism. What it boils down to is this: crap for 90% of the year, and then a month or two of good stuff, all released during the so-called Academy Award season (late November to mid-January) so as to stay fresh in the collective memories of the voting boards who release their nominations in early February.

It’s bad enough that the people who vote for the Oscars are so out of touch that they gave the mediocre Gladiator a Best Picture Oscar (not to mention chose Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction, Titanic over L.A. Confidential, and so on, ad nauseam.). The fact that they acknowledge their own mental laziness in only giving thought to recent films is nothing short of egregious.

So many movies are made these days, and so many suck so bad, that you’d think the studios would try some strategic scheduling to prevent the recurring “what a bad year for movies” vibe that consistently arises every September. Instead, they stockpile the (potentially, ostensibly, hopefully) quality efforts and release them all in one simultaneous tidal wave during the insanely busy holiday season, thereby preventing most normal people (those without unhealthy obsessions) from seeing more than two or three of the best movies Hollywood has to offer. Why wouldn’t they disperse them evenly throughout the year and offset the shit with some shinola?

Maybe back in the day (“back in the day” is slang for "once upon a time") when summer movies succeeded as entertaining escapism rather than existed as the glossy music videos that they are now, it wasn’t so obvious that nothing good came out till the end of the year. Maybe it's because when you're a kid, almost any movie will do (I remember loving the movie-going experience so much when I was little that the only movie I can recall disliking was Never Cry Wolf. Oh, and Maid to Order. But basically everything else passed muster until I reached about 12.) But, as an experienced, more discriminating filmgoer (perhaps too discriminating, according to my brothers), even the summer flicks that come out these days are lacking in any kind of originality, vitality or fun.

To prove that I am not a total movie snob, I offer that I enjoyed Charlie’s Angels, I love Face/Off, and I even thought Pearl Harbor was good (Total, bald-faced lie. If Pearl Harbor wasn’t called Pearl Harbor, and wasn’t about Pearl Harbor, and was instead marketed/designed/directed as a popcorn piece of fluff rather than as an important, legitimate “award” type film, then maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so insultingly bad. It would’ve just been Armageddon. And Armageddon was at least a little fun. Owen Wilson’s in it, after all.)

It’s common knowledge that all the real films, at least the “mainstream” quality films, don’t come out until December and January, and perhaps that was fine when there were other entertaining films hitting the neighborhood throughout the rest of the year. Maybe not necessarily award-worthy (which is admittedly an arbirtrary term), but popcorn entertainment. But no, it’s only the two extremes these days, for the most part. Summer movies are vapid garbage these days, with few entertaining exceptions (i.e., The Matrix), and the only way to see anything good during the middle 9 months of the year is to go to an Independent/Art film, which, unfortunately, are severely lacking anywhere outside of major metropolitan areas.

Think about it. Name 5 really good movies that came out this year, before December 1st. And not including Memento, 'cause that’s an independent/art film. It is. Hmmm... Hannibal? Total crap. Blow? Nah. From Hell Okay, pretty good. But it’s not going to win any awards, neither through the bullshit committees that hand out the Oscars nor through an idealized one based purely on merit or on my opinion (please refer to my last feature for my qualifications). It’s good, but not that good. Mulholland Drive? Terrific, but art film. Amores Perros? Again, excellent, but foreign, aka, art film. Waking Life? Art film. Ghost World? Art film. The Others? Okay, you got me, I’d call that a really good film. Maybe even award-worthy. Kidman was fantastic and the direction is letter-perfect. Can you name another? Not really. Maybe A.I.. It’s flawed, but at least it’s ambitious; sadly, it was a winter film deposited in the wrong season, marketed as a Spielberg blockbuster and thus creating a backlash from mainstream audiences expecting E.T. and getting The Seventh Seal (allow me that extreme exaggeration).

Now, here’s a list of major releases due to hit theaters over the next month: The Lord of the Rings, The Royal Tenenbaums, Ali, Ocean’s Eleven (which probably should have been released in the summertime), A Beautiful Mind, The Majestic, Vanilla Sky. Maybe only two of those will actually be great. But they certainly have more potential to be worthwhile than The Mummy Returns, Miss Congeniality, Original Sin, America’s Sweethearts, Thirteen Ghosts, Out Cold, etc. So, allowing those movies a slight benefit of the doubt, that’s seven potentially superior films hitting the theaters in December, with approximately three or four decent mainstreamers released over the previous 9 or 10 months.

The sad truth behind the situation - hidden between the gossip and debauchery of Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a chronicling of the last creatively empowered decade in Hollywood, the 1970s - is that the spectacular success of “good” summer movies such as Jaws and Star Wars and etc. created the modern day blockbuster mentality, where the bottom line is all that matters and creativity is sacrificed in the name of greed. Jaws started the stampede to theaters and re-jiggered the film industry’s priorities, allowing studio executives to wrest control from filmmakers and begin replacing art with commerce and quality with quantity.

Spielberg is largely responsible for this phenomenon, and it must be galling for him to have realized so late in his career that he suddenly wanted to attempt meaningful, intelligent films, successfully or not. The public doesn’t really want “weight” from him, as evidenced by A.I.’s polarizing response; they want fluff. And he is in danger of being swallowed by the beast he created. But he’ll bounce back; lately he’s tempering his personal films (will he ever make Memoirs of a Geisha?) with popcorn (Minority Report coming soon…).

To wrap up this way-too-long column, I’d like to think that there is some hope, what with such increasingly available, inexpensive means to make movies as digital video and the internet. And that there are a handful of directors out there who have demonstrated the potential to jumpstart a new era of artistic film, and perhaps even one where art and commerce can converge. But I temper that hope with a cynic’s, and a snob’s, caveat: as long as the public continues to pay for such swill as Harry Potter (which isn’t quite so bad as "swill" but is an excellent example of mechanical, by-the-numbers business sense overwhelming creative passion), the studio suits will have the upper hand over artists who can’t pay people enough to see worthy films such as Fight Club, Rushmore and Magnolia.

Shut up about Magnolia.


ABOUT MIKE JULIANELLE

Let's get real here. You don't want to know about me. You want to know about "me".

more about mike julianelle

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
12.19.01 @ 8:32a

Catering to the "lowest common denominator" has always been a factor in the entertainment industry. Film, music, literature, television: the entire industry believes that only a select few are "aware" of quality, and while those people need to satiated, constantly appealing to their tastes will not rake in major money.

It would be interesting to see what people would respond to if they were spoon-fed quality rather than tripe.

That being said, many intelligent people prefer the escapism that certain forms of entertainment provide. How else would you explain the popularity of Three Stooges?

Also, what denotes "quality?" Some things, of course, are obvious - we think. But it's still a matter of personal taste. For example, I thought Eyes Wide Shut was garbage, but Fight Club brilliant. I'm sure that many would disagree, but by what yardstick are we measuring? Does that make my preference less worthy than someone else's?

adam kraemer
12.19.01 @ 10:34a

Miss Congeniality came out last year.

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 10:48a

And I loved it -- surprisingly funny and entertaining. I'd put it in the "While your were sleeping" category -- lite fare meant to make the audience smile, not think about awards. Sandy does comedy much better than drama (The horrid "Hope Floats" comes to mind.)

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 10:57a

Well, I've seen a lot of Miss Cong - not to be confused with VietCong - and I didn't like it. That part where she does that horrible Rain Man impression made me gag. But I used to like Bullock, when she was in decent movies, and I did enjoy While you Were Sleeping. But 28 Days and Miss Cong...yikes.

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 10:59a

But what I really want to comment on is your Spielberg remark. I disagree with your assessment that he "suddenly" wanted to attempt meaningful , intelligent films so late in his career. Sure, some of his more commerically successful films were of the fantasy genre -- Raiders of the Ark, ET, Jurrasic Park -- but in the meantime, he's been making deeper dramas since the early '80s (Color Purple, Amistad, and, what I believe is his best and most brilliant film, Empire of the Sun, in '87). Schindler's List in '93 earned him both critical acclaim and box office dollars; this was solidified with Saving Private Ryan in '98. We can argue about the merits of his films, but I definitely believe that if you asked Spielberg, he'd say that he's been making "meaningful" films for decades.

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 11:10a

Okay, you got me. But, in the 70s..well, no, even Sugarland Express, his first feature after Duel - TV movie - I guess was an attempt at something more than popcorn. Hell, even Close Encounters has his typical lost child theme...Maybe I should've said that he had more success recently with that stuff. I like Empire quite a bit, intense, sad movie (the choral song is awesome, and Christian Bale as well)...but he wasn;t really taken seriosuly at all as an adult movie maker until SPR, even Color Purple was kind of glossed over...but I think A.I. was his biggest leap, in that he tackled some deep stuff without the safety net of convention that most of his films have (barring Schindler's).

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 11:11a

Excuse me, "taken seriously as an adult filmmaker until Schindler's", it should have said.

And Raiders is in my top 5 of all time.

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 11:20a

Re: your "glossed over" comment: The Color Purple was nominated for 11 academy awards in 1986, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress (2).
(God, I love the IMDB)

But Speilberg didn't get a Best Director nod -- I remember that causing some controversy. Was the movie taken seriously, but it's director, not?

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 11:23a

I think the movie was taken seriously because of the subject matter, and yeah, I think Spiels was still not given too much credit for it. And Oscars are seldom a barometer for quality.

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 11:29a

I don't know -- I kind of feel that the Oscars usually nominate a good number of "quality" films, but then don't necessarily give them any award. You mentioned some in your article -- Pulp Fiction & LA Confidential -- and it is rare they miss the "obvious" ones.

Of course, I did not agree when Empire of the Sun didn't get a nom, and I'm sure you were angry when Magnolia wasn't a best picture candidate. (I'll refrain from pontificating on that film, I promise!)

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 11:36a

I also think films are like wine -- they need some breathing time before they can be judged. Like, Titanic. All the critics -- & Hollywood -- loooooooved that movie when it first came out, and voted for it as Best Picture based on immediate reaction. But does it stand up after a few years and many viewings? I'd guess from the critical backlash and general disgust it now generates, the answer would be No.

Since I do not anticipate anyone moving the Academy Awards three years ahead of the release schedule, however, I guess we'll just have to deal with first impression Oscars. (Especially since, as Mike points out, the best films don't come out until December, so we don't even have a year to digest them.)

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 12:15p

I agree. I think critics get kinda screwed because I know when I see a movie, first impressions don't usually last. I find that I need to see a movie more than once to know how I really feel about it, free from expectations and hype and stuff...

And if I could only go back and nominate my top 5 films from 1999, it would be incredibly different than the mess they put up there. Cider House Rules my ass.

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 12:16p

Oh, and someone critiqued my article but their comments got cut off! They were pointing out some tense issues...any takers?

russ carr
12.19.01 @ 12:19p

I see a Michael vs. Michelle Pigfighting Thread coming soon.

russ carr
12.19.01 @ 12:20p

er...I'm the tense guy, too. E-mail me if you need it in private...and you can tell me how much actually showed up of the critique.

russ carr
12.19.01 @ 12:22p

And do we really need to know what rules your ass, Michael?

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 12:26p

Russ, I emailed you. And you are quite the clever one today, with your verbal jousts.

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 1:09p

It seems a few people are disregarding the last line of my column. Bastards!

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 1:47p

It's there. It's hard not to!

Russ, if this discussion continues any longer, Mike & I will end up agreeing completely.

Hee, I was going to use "Cider House Rules" as my second example of movies that don't stand up to repeated viewings.

matt morin
12.19.01 @ 1:52p

You make a big distinction between movies and art house movies. But these days, isn't that like arguing that "alternative" music is somehow still "alternative"?

Even the art house movies these days have decent budgets, well-known actors, and great production quality.

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 2:03p

I don't mean to make the distinction based on budget, but the fact is movies that arise out of the studios are usually movies by committee and are more manufactured than anything else, barring a few directors who have the stature to control them all themselves. Independent/art-house movies have more in mind than the bottom line, and most movies that come out of major studios, no matter how they spin it, are devoted to profitability.

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 2:13p

So Mike, what WOULD your top 5 films from 1999 be? I think my list (for Academy Award noms, not for films I watch/enjoy the most, since that distinction would belong to She's All That) would be as follows: Go, Cradle Will Rock, Being John Malkovich, Run Lola Run, and American Beauty. But maybe not the last one -- AB kind of left me cold. But Kevin Spacey was brilliant, and I enjoyed all the other performances by actors-not-married-to-Warren Beatty, so it could stay on the list.

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 2:21p

Um, without the benefit of research or a trusty memory, the five I'd have nominated are: Magnolia, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, American Beauty, The Insider.

Though I would probably remove American Beauty in favor of Election or The Talented Mr. Ripley. But Beauty is legit enough. Regrettably, I still haven't seen Cradle (LOVE Bob Roberts), and Run Lola Run wins best foreign. 99 was a great year.

The fact that The Green Mile (RETCH!) and Cider House Rules were nominated stinks. I hate Mile, and Cider is okay but nothing that memorable if you ask me. Especially with the other films that were out there.

russ carr
12.19.01 @ 2:29p

I only joust verbally because I cannot yet joust literally on a Segway™ (as referenced in a gorgeous column which needs more critiques).

mmmmmokay, Michael, does a foreign film automatically qualify as an "art" or "indie" film then, just because it may or may not be a product of the major studio system? If the next Jeunet film is Ou Est Mon Voiture, Ami? does that position it by default in a better class of film? (aside: yes, from Jeunet, it would.)

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 2:36p

There are plenty of bad foreign films. And there are plenty of bad homegrown indie films. Just as an indie isn't inherently good, quality films and Hollywood are not mutually exclusive. I am not the type that only sees indies, and I certainly do not only see the big boys either. A film needs to be judged on its own merits, but in my experience, the more control the filmmaker has over his movie, the better the film. Committees don't make art.

This is a very tricky discussion, and there's really no definitive answer.

And if Bruckheimer made Instant Amnesia Man, it would suck.

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 2:36p

Mile annoyed me, and Cider was OK, but I didn't buy it for one minute, and Charlize Theron's character should have been in another movie.

I liked a lot of Talented Mr. Ripley -- the end was flawed and I left the theater angry with it, but it did a lot of right things, and it took chances, and was beautifully shot and acted. I have the same feeling about The End of the Affair -- movies that almost make my list...

I've yet to see Fight Club, that's why it's not on mine. And both Magnolia and The Insider might have made it if either one had been better edited.

michelle von euw
12.19.01 @ 2:41p

The worst movie I ever saw was an indie film. I think it was called Heart to Heart.com and it had won some award from some NY critics group. It marked the only time I asked Blockbuster for a refund.

And I've disliked many foreign films, most of them by French directors (highly disappointed by Dreamlife of Angels)...

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 2:43p

I agree that Talented is flawed, but I LOVE the end, I just think it perhaps went on a bit too long. But I LOVE the end.

Cider is OK. OhmyGod, and Chocolat was nominated last year? WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE!!

matt morin
12.19.01 @ 3:10p

Magnolia was brilliant. So was Run Lola Run. Fight Club was great too. I'm a big American Beauty fan, although it loses some of its magic with repeated viewings.

Malkovich was almost too original for its own good. I liked it a lot, but didn't love it.

And The Insider I thought was the most boring movie I've seen in a long time. It was originally a 15 minute segment on 60 Minutes, and should have stayed that way.

Was Rushmore in '99?

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 3:11p

Holy shit RUSHMORE!!!!!!!!!!!!

If I start talking about it I'll never stop.......

I agree Beauty runs a bit dry after a while, but a very good movie. Good calls on everything else too, 'cept Insider, in my book.

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 3:16p

Alas, Rushmore was '98. But The Royal Tenenbaums is in 2 days! I wish I could lapse myself into a coma until then.

matt morin
12.19.01 @ 3:39p

For those who haven't already heard the praise on Amelie, it's amazingly good by the way.

russ carr
12.19.01 @ 3:39p

Joe keeps offering to put you in a coma, Michael. Or at least an ass-sling.

I'm eager for TRT, too...but I'm so behind on my movie watching, I still haven't seen (*sob*) The Man Who Wasn't There -or- Mulholland Drive. They're pencilled in for Christmas Week, though...

mike julianelle
12.19.01 @ 3:52p

Mulholland Drive is amazing...but if you don't like Lynch, be careful.

mike julianelle
12.21.01 @ 9:23a

So, anyone else convinced that Ron Howard probably ruined a good story with A Beautiful Mind? Or that Russell Crowe is the only thing that gives the movie any cred? To be fair, I haven't seen it, but Howard doesn't have the best track record in my eyes.

jael mchenry
12.21.01 @ 10:07a

I can't see it. Boycotting Akiva Goldsman, y'know.

mike julianelle
12.21.01 @ 10:12a

Yeah, prolly a good strategy. Howard, Goldsman...stay away. But I'm gonna see it anyways. Crowe is great and Connelly is, well, talented. Really. Among other things.

russ carr
12.21.01 @ 10:14a

Down on Opie? I'd give him at least a .500 average. While I didn't see either EdTV or The Grinch, I thought Parenthood and Backdraft were decent, The Paper and Ransom were above average, and Apollo 13 was outstanding. I'm looking forward to ABM...though I'm really hoping it doesn't turn into Shine II.

russ carr
12.21.01 @ 10:16a

Though Jael raises a far sharper reason to avoid it. Ick. I was not aware of The Hack's involvement.

mike julianelle
12.21.01 @ 10:21a

I liked Apollo 13, but Far and Away is crap, Willow is crap, Cocoon is shmaltz, Splash is good, The Paper I hated, Ransom I didn't like, Backdraft was alright and Parenthood is okay. But I don't think he has proved himself in any way, outside of Apollo 13, as an above average director, and I am very suspicious of his ability to handle a darker movie like A Beautiful Mind.

jael mchenry
12.21.01 @ 10:23a

Paper? Good. EdTV? Good. A Beautiful Mind? Oscar-bait hack-scribed trash.

Can't believe Tenenbaums is out. I was thinking "Hey that's not coming out til Christmas" for so long that I was truly shocked to see a review in the paper today. Haven't actually processed that it's practically Christmas. I must shop!

mike julianelle
12.21.01 @ 10:51a

EdTV good? Come on now!

Royal Tenenbaums. The Fenway. 6:30. Oh yeah.

russ carr
12.21.01 @ 11:30a

Tenenbaums won't get here 'til January 4. Grr. Arg.

mike julianelle
12.21.01 @ 11:39a

Grr argh is right. Why can't the day just end?

jael mchenry
12.21.01 @ 11:54a

Mike says: "Cider is OK. OhmyGod, and Chocolat was nominated last year? WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE!!"

Um, they're Miramax, that's who.

mike julianelle
12.21.01 @ 11:58a

Yeah, that campaigning garbage makes me sick. What happened to merit?

russ carr
12.21.01 @ 12:20p

Um, they're Miramax, that's who.

Yeah, but will J&SBSB get a single vote?

michelle von euw
12.21.01 @ 1:26p

Merit, schmerit. Do you remember that Harvey Weinstein apologized to the cast and crew of The Talented Mr. Ripley, taking full responsibility for their lack of nominations because he was too sick to campaign?!?

mike julianelle
12.21.01 @ 1:55p

Sickening. The world needs an avenger. I am that man.
What?

mike julianelle
12.27.01 @ 4:47p

Fellowship of the Ring: Good, nothing to wet your pants over. Give me the original Star Wars trilogy any day.

The Royal Tenenbaums: hilarious, touching, superbly acted, off the wall...brilliant. Best movie of the year.

matt morin
12.27.01 @ 5:45p

Vanilla Sky was better than I thought it'd be - although Kurt Russel as the prison psychiatrist was a bad choice. And the 5 minutes at the end, where they spell it all out for the dumber members of the audience, that always bugs me.

mike julianelle
12.27.01 @ 5:56p

Kurt Russell was a bad choice. What a whimp.

I have seen the original Spanish version, Abre Los Oyos, and I like it a lot better. Although I liked Crowe's insertion of the pop-culture stuff (don't want to spoil by mentioning specifics), the original is creepy and menacing whereas Vanilla Sky is too soft, too Cameron Crowe/soul-searching for me.

michelle von euw
12.28.01 @ 4:02p

Just saw it -- and I agree with Matt -- it wasn't as bad as I expected it to be. Then again, it didn't feel creepy or menacing at all, which I guess the original was. Big Sigh. I enjoyed the scenes and the acting and definitely, the soundtrack -- that REM song rocks. I feel like we were, I don't know, misled into thinking it would be something deeper than it was. Also, let me say this again, previews SUCK and totally ruined part of it.

mike julianelle
12.28.01 @ 4:06p

Not the previews before the movie, but the previews for Vanilla Sky that give away some of it, you mean?

michelle von euw
12.28.01 @ 4:22p

Yes. sorry for my confusing syntax. Although I didn't love the previews for other films, either. I will NOT be seeing either Unfaithful. Or Bad Company.

mike julianelle
12.28.01 @ 4:31p

I saw a preview for Changing Lanes with Ben Affleck and Sam Jackson. It is one of the worst previews I have ever scene, and the movie's premise is a joke!

matt morin
12.28.01 @ 6:54p

Speaking of bad premises...how could anyone buy Kate & Leopold? "I found a time portal back to the 1700s!" Are you kidding me?

mike julianelle
12.28.01 @ 10:19p

I feel the same way. What a crock. Meg Ryan has milked the romantic comedy teat one too many times, and she's nearing the end of the road.

matt morin
12.28.01 @ 10:35p

Michael, there are so many 7th grade jokes that could follow that post, I'm not even sure where to start.

mike julianelle
12.29.01 @ 9:44a

Matt, to quote Al Pacino in Heat:

GIMME ALL YA GOT! GIMME ALL YA GOT!!



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