Friday, March 9, 2007

Hollywood's New Genre Films

My limited time has certainly been a contributing factor to my absence at the theater over the past several months. But even if I did have the time, I don't think I would have ventured out to see Wild Hogs, Norbit, Hannibal Rising, Primevil, or whatever else has been released. It's been so dreary of late that I haven't even kept up with the journalistic criticism I usually do. Usually, I like reading good criticism from the likes of David Edelstein, A.O. Scott, and others, even if the movies don't interest me. But I've even lost interest in that. Recently, however, that interest has been re-invigorated. While I still don't have a great amount of time, it's nice to see some movies arrive at theaters that actually may warrant some attention; movies that compel me to make time in my schedule for a trip to the movie theater.

One film that really caught my interest is Zack Snyder's 300. It has opened to mostly positive reviews, but the real reason I want to see it is because of how good Snyder's last feature was, the remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004). It was a refreshing horror-action made with skill and energy, something sorely lacking from many contemporary American horror films. It lacked the social commentary that permeated George A. Romero's horror masterpiece, but it did so intentionally. Snyder wanted to make a horror film stripped down to its bones; a down-and-dirty survival pic, the kind rarely made made nowadays. And it was a gem. I remember being so enamored by the first ten minutes of that film that when it finally stopped to breathe, I realized there was still a whole movie to play out, one I was flat-out giddy to be watching. I know very little about 300 outside it's striking images of bodies and violence in trailers. But because of my enthusiasm for Snyder's last film, I look forward to possibly seeing his latest this weekend.

Also, on the topic of horror, Bong Joon-Ho's The Host was released today. I remember reading about the film during the Toronto Film Festival last Fall, but I never expected that its positive reception at that festival and otherswould result in a semi-wide release in America before coming to DVD. (On a somewhat related note, I have also read that Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn, another hit at Toronto, has targetted a late March theatrical release as well, which is encouraging if true.)

After reading Jim Emerson's recent post, What If They Didn't Spend Millions to Advertise "Norbit"?, in which Jim responds to the comments about film critics from the director of Norbit, I felt positive about the fact that The Host has been given a theatrical release. This simple fact gives me hope that some studios are intent on releasing good films rather than assembly line garbage; the cinematic equivalent of fast food, which is now often mistaken for real movies. Jim's post elucidates some very important issues concerning the state of film production and film criticism that are scary to think about. Therefore, a foreign horror film given a theatrical treatment is so encouraging since a) foreign films, by and large, are thought of as arthouse films and are released only in small movie houses before going to DVD, and b) horror and action films are in a slump right now, to say the least. Outside the major summer blockbusters, which are often so sanitized for family viewing and little more than studio vehicles educating the masses to be good consumers, action/horror films have become practically inconsequential. The ones that are being made are usually so bad and proud of it, boldly turning a cold shoulder to critics before being released in the January/February wasteland of theatrical releases.

Sparing the critics from seeing and writing about such awful films is actually a good thing for critics, since they can focus their attention on films in which their voices are important, such as The Host. Were it not for the critical response to the Host to begin with, it would not be seeing a release right now. So, in my mind, the question regarding the relevance of film critics depends on the film and its context. With context, we have a whole other plethora of considerations, especially considering the issue of critical impact.

There seems to be a division in Hollywood when it comes to genre films. They are either mass-marketed venues for product placement that people like me would hardly consider movies or bad, unimaginative genre flicks with no imagination or originality. And since critics are only influential in ciricles of film audiences, studios are now more prone to ignore the critics and remain content making garbage so long that people will continue buying tickets. Unfortunately, this has become a major problems such as these divisions in Hollywood films. As films are either plugged with multi-million dollar ad campaigns made with slick production values or made with virtually no support and are cringingly awful, interest in actual quality is no longer the issue. In fact, viewers' notions of what consitutes quality is shifting ever so slowly as genre movies are becoming worse. The bar is moving lower and lower, and so many people just don't know it and now come to expect it. Now, the alternatives to the mass marketed films of the summer are comedies like Norbit, horror movies like Primevil, and dramas like Hannibal Rising.

That's why I am always so enthusiastic when a good genre film actually makes it through the Hollwood system. For example, Batman Begins (2005) is a rare big-budget movie that doesn't feel like a commercial or a mass-assembled television show slopped together and made most easily consumable for viewers. Seeing a Hollywood film with actual vision and passion for the cinematic craft is rare and refreshing, which is why films like 300 and Zodiac look good to me; based on what I've seen, they appear to have that quality. Their directors somehow work within the system to defy its current output, and it shows in what I've seen of them.

Then again, I may be wrong about them. They may not be truly great films in the traditional manner of defining good cinema, but I am fairly certain that they are more than studio schlock that is frequently pushed on and swallowed by the moviegoing public. But I think that film quality is often measured not by how effectively a film structures its script or draws its characters, but rather by how interesting its images are and how it tells its story. I think it's more important to ask questions about how a certain image or scene, maybe one that doens't feel right, rather than point out its weaknesses, or what you perceive to be weaknesses.

One would hope that quality films (as defined under such terms) are more successful at these times of year, when studios are experimenting a little bit more before they unleash the "safe" blockbusters into multiplexes this summer plugged with a $40 million advertising campaign. Maybe - just maybe - the success of overseas foreign films like Host would mean that studio execs are willing to take more chances and make real films with real filmmakers, so that we can have more young directors with vision like Zack Snyder.

I should note before singing the praises of films like 300 and Zodiac that I have yet to see them and their marketing campaigns were both very extensive. As I have said before, though, March and April usually represent the studios experimental time. Last year, good genre films like Inside Man and V For Vendetta opened to good box office numbers. (Inside Man was directed by Spike Lee and is a great example of a director working within a studio system and genre conventions even, to tell a good story.) Hopefully, if these films and others are of similar quality, studios will front have more confidence in directors who care about cinema.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic, but movies refusing to be defined by the current two-pronged spectrum of Hollywood genre filmmaking could remind viewers of the freshness that genre films can actually exude, which could then increase the output of good genre films. Genre pictures don't have to be static; they don't have to be horrible if they don't have huge marketing campaigns or are watered down into safe blockbusters. They can still be good, and they can have an audience. Hopefully now that the field of theatrical releases is becoming a bit more interesting, audiences and studios will realize this.

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