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Can't Stop the Movies

Shrek 2 (2004)

I will admit that I am a Pixar fanboy.  I have a Pixar shirt, have seen all of their movies in the theatres and compare every animated film against theirs.  This is why I used to think that I really didn’t like or understand the appeal of Shrek 2.Part of me thought it was because it was so popular and huge that I resented it for taking some prestige away from my Pixar films.  So with an open mind I tried again to watch Shrek 2 without my bias. I then realized something I didn’t like the film because it was a bad film.

Movies are a lot like food and many have expiration dates.  It is very rare that a film avoids the mark of father time.  Movies like Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain and The Godfather are of a rare breed where they seem as appealing and fresh as they did the day they were released.  More often than not the years and decades wear on a film and the movie seems like a relic of its era.  That is the reason that calling a film “timeless” is one of the highest compliments you can give a film. Sometimes it is the era that it is made is what dates it (To Live in Die in LA I am looking at you and all your neon washed glory) and sometimes when you strip the hype away look at a film with fresh eyes it becomes noticeable that the film wasn’t that good to start with.


Return of the King (2003)

As sad as it is to say the Lord of the Ring films are the movie equivalent of the fun friend you always forget to invite out.  When you see that friend you have a great time, you remember why you are friends and you make a promise to yourself to keep in better contact.  Then the next time rolls around when you are making plans and once again they are forgotten.  Lord of the Rings to me are films I truly love when I am watching them but never think of when talking about or thinking of favorite films.   In other words in my world, Return of the King is as they say, “always a bridesmaid and never a bride.”

Why is it that I always seem to forget these films when they are not right in front of me?  What makes them not be in the same magical realm that I hold the Die Hard, Star Wars and Indiana Jones films?  To get to the bottom of this I am going to ask and answer a string of questions about them.


Spider-Man (2002) / Spider-Man 3 (2007)

This week I am going to do something a little different and combine two of the Thirty Years at the Top movies into one article.  Spider-Man and Spider-Man 3 are two great examples to compare and contrast when talking about why a movie works and why it doesn’t.  The two films were created by the same brain trust, featuring the same characters, and staring the same actors.  Both movies also were huge successes, but one film is seen as a shining beacon on how to make comic films, and the other one is a cited as an example of what to avoid when rounding out the trilogy.

Spider-Man came out in May of 2002 and blew the doors off so many records those first few weeks.  The film had the biggest weekend of all time, fastest to $100 million, fastest to $200 million, and fastest to $300 million.  It was a fan favorite for everyone from little kids to adults and it even was a hit with critics.  Spider-Man absolutely DOMINATED the summer of 2002 and left such big films like Star Wars Episode II, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Men in Black II in its wake.  People saw the film more than once and gushed about it with friends and family.  I remember seeing it with my girlfriend (and now wife) the day I got home for summer break and then going again on Sunday because we had so much fun. So out of the $114+million dollars the film made that weekend, we contributed with over $20.

Spider-Man III had a bigger opening weekend, was faster to $100 and $200 million dollars and was the biggest film of the year.  Yet, critics weren’t as enamored. The film dropped out of the theatres a lot faster than the first one, and if you ask people their thoughts on this movie, you will be met with everything from hatred to general apathy.  I again saw this movie on opening night and was excited, but afterwards had no inkling to see it in the theater again.  The movie made its money by coasting on the good memories people had for the first and second film of the series

Not the greatest costume but a good character none the less.

What happened between the first and the third films?  There were no shakeups behind the scenes.  Sam Raimi directed both films and the same cast appeared throughout the series.  So when and how did the franchise jump the tracks?  A few rules will help make sense of this.

Rule 1: Make a film from your heart.  Spider-Man was the film that Sam Raimi and crew wanted to make.  Raimi was a big Spider-Man fan growing up, and he got to make the film that he had dreamed about for years.  Love pours off the screen, and everything in the movie was made deliberately and with love.  Spider-Man 3 was the product of a lot of studio intervention and many of the characters and story arcs Raimi had to deal with did not have his full interest and it shows.  A director in a film has a gargantuan task, especially with the summer blockbusters, and the director has to be 100% involved for the film to work.  Raimi, in Spider-Man 3, was not fully invested, and the movie suffered from it.

Rule 2: Make a film that tells one complete story. Spider-Man was about Peter Parker turning into a superhero and learning the costs associated with such life.  Everything in the movie and all characters existed to help strengthen this one idea.  The love story, the villain, and any other B-plots the movie might have had all tied back into Peter Parker becoming something more and bigger and the sacrifices that might entail.  People might think that keeping a movie grounded with the origin story is an easy task, Raimi was able to tell a strong story in the second (and in my opinion even better) film with the whole “Spider-Man no more” storyline.  It wasn’t until the third movie that the stories overwhelm the movie.  In 3, Parker is pulled in many different directions and shoehorned into so many different stories; nothing feels complete with the whole film.  The movie introduced big characters in the Spidey universe like Gwen Stacey and her father and then did NOTHING with them in the film.  The movie finally showed Peter and Mary-Jane together, something that the films were building up to and the fans wanted to see, and made them so unappealing together you were rooting not only for Peter not to propose but for the two to stay far away from each other.  The third film also fell trap to the rule in trilogies that you have to tie all three films together in one big bow.  By changing the story of how Uncle Ben was killed, by shoehorning the Sandman in as the shooter, it changed how the whole series is viewed and in my case it wasn’t for the good.  Yet, the biggest problem with the story in part 3 came from breaking the following rule.

Rule 3: One main villain please.  Spider-Man had the Green Goblin, Spider-Man 2 had Doc Ock, Spider-Man 3 had every other villain Peter Parker has ever come up against.  Ok, that might be a wee bit of an exaggeration, but there are moments in the film that sure felt like it.  In Spider-Man 3 there are villains that pop up and then are absent from the film for at least an hour (Sandman), villains who have a battle and then get amnesia for part of the film (Hobgoblin) and villains who don’t actually become villains until late into the 2nd act (Venom).  With them showing up and leaving at odd intervals, none of the rogues gallery felt like a real credible threat.  I loved Sandman in the film and the story with him and his kid.  Thomas Haden Church was doing great with the character, and they were giving him better treatment than most comics have given him that just paints him as a thug.  Then he is gone for most of the middle part of the film and everything the film was building up for him is squandered.  If Spider-Man 3 treated him like the treated The Green Goblin in the first film, it could have been a much different film.  Green Goblin was just an unhinged man fighting his sanity and trying to keep his empire together.  Spider-Man has the father figure that Peter doesn’t need with the Green Goblin and the tragic showdown between the two characters at the end of the film is earned. You have seen them fight and both struggle with what they had become. In the 3rd movie there are so many balls in the air and not enough time to showcase them so everything becomes a jumbled mess. When the big fight comes you don’t care about any of it and the only reason you are happy that Harry helps out Peter is because of the goodwill the first two movies carried over into this part.

One of the most famous scenes in the series.

Those are the three rules that I think directors and studio execs should cut out and put on the fridge when making a sequel to a beloved film.  For the Spider-Man films, I went from loving the first one, really loving the second to being disappointed (but not hating) the third.  I believe there are moments in 3 that are ok and half of the film works, but it is very evident there were too many cooks in the kitchen for the film.  So maybe in reality, the three rules to follow are secondary to one plea I give the studio heads and men behind the scenes.  Please, if the director and cast have shown repeatedly that they know how to make a good film, don’t interfere with what is working.  Leave the creators alone and you will count the money, become a vocal part of the film and you will only watch the goodwill and money disappear faster than you ever would have imagined.  But I guess that is OK with the studios, because there is always the re-boot when you wear out your welcome.

Emo Peter Parker, a classic.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)

I was in college when the first Harry Potter movie came out and a critic for my school newspaper. When it first came out my review lovingly gushed about the film. Thanks to a summer job working with grade school kids I knew all about the Harry Potter books and had become a huge fan.  So when the movie faithfully adapted the book I got a little over excited.  I compared it to E.T. (anyone knows me knows that is HIGH praise) and predicted it would be loved for generations to come much like Wizard of Oz. I might have gotten caught up in the excitement.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is not a bad movie.  I like the film and it set the groundwork for the franchise.  I just don’t think that it is the best family film of all time, or even of the last decade.  The one thing that keeps the movie from reaching its true potential is its steadfast dedication to adapting everything faithfully.

Beautiful scenery and locations really help this movie feel like the books.

I watched the film again a little less than ten years after it was released and had the hindsight into being able to see how the franchise had evolved over seven movies.  While the movies seemed to grow into themselves as the series progressed I believe that Columbus (the director of the first 2 films) is unfairly maligned for his part in the franchise.  There are many points you have to give him for the success of the films.

  • He cast the film perfectly from the main kids to the teachers all the way down to the smaller roles. Everyone embodies their roles perfectly and I am glad the cast has stuck with the franchise throughout because I could not imagine anyone else playing Harry, Ron, Snape or many of the other characters.
  • The look and the feel of the movie fit the vision of the book.  The sets and locations for the film were beautiful. Hogwarts was just as imagined and the whole film made you feel like you stepped in the world of Harry Potter.
  • He made the first film a huge success.  This might not seem like that hard of a feat since the books were the biggest things at the turn of the century.  But you cant discount the fact that Columbus gave the people what they wanted and guaranteed the rest of the series would be made into films.

Our fearless heroes.

With the third point I think Columbus and all the creators of The Sorcerer’s Stone went a step too far in making sure everyone loved the movie.  The film is very faithful to the source material and all the favorite scenes are devotedly recreated for the screen and cost the film its own identity and soul.  The movie felt like an illustrated version of the book and not a movie in its’ own right. And although the design and look were great the movie did not feel lived in.

Until the third movie the films did not have any identity of the own.  From The Prisoner of Azkabahan on the directors felt like they had a little leeway to change, tweak and make the story their own.  By this time the groundwork had been set and the series was a runaway success so there was more freedom. That is why accessing the first Harry Potter movie on its own is a tricky task.  Was the rigid adaptation a necessary evil for the first movie to set the tone and gain support?  If the film would have taken risks would we have seen all the films adapted or would it have been as big a success and petered out after the third or fourth movie?  Should the first movie be punished for a few flaws or be celebrated for creating a franchise that will in quoting my ten-year old review, “be popular for generations to come.”

Daniel Radcliffe looking quite young


How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

I was very conflicted about how to do this weeks’ Thirty Years at the Top.  My initial idea was to write a one sentence article stating that “The Grinch is terrible, it is not worth your time to watch it or even read why it is terrible” but I thought that was the easy way out.  While How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a horrible movie that was created for the sole reason that it would make money, it is a perfect example of where movies went wrong in this last decade.

The actual movie of How the Grinch Stole Christmas is shallow, ugly and created to sell tickets and merchandise in the Christmas season.  Certain things do not need to be made and this movie is a shining example.  The beloved (and rightfully so) cartoon has been popular for generations and is a staple of many families Christmas traditions.  The cartoon is pretty much perfect.  It had animation that fits the story perfectly, a catch song and a great voiceover.  More importantly than all that it was the perfect length at a little over 20 minutes the cartoon tells its story and leaves.  The movie bloats the story to an excruciating 104 minutes long and adds back-stories and new plots that no one really cared about.  I remember having to see the film twice in the first weekend because I went with my girlfriend and then the next day my family wanted to see it for Thanksgiving.  Let me say that I don’t think I have suffered through a longer 2 hours than when I had to suffer through the film again.  I have never been a huge fan of Ron Howard and I think the reason he is so respected is because he is so damn nice (but huge props to him for being a huge supporter of Arrested Development) but this has to be a low point career wise for him.

The dog was one of the only things adapted well from the book/cartoon

This brings me to the point I want to talk about most.  I would say this would be a low career point for him but the money made a TON of money.  It was the biggest film of the year and one of the biggest movie in the careers for most involved.   When you look at it with the question of “why was this movie made?” the only answer that can be surmised is to make money.  Of course the reason that studios greenlight films is because they want to make money. If they didn’t the studio probably wouldn’t be around for long but there should be some creative reasoning behind the film too.  You can have a huge hit that will appeal to the four quadrants and still have artistic reasoning. Everyone knew that Spiderman would be a huge hit when it was made a few years later but there were many directors out there that dreamed of making a Spiderman film for years.  James Cameron tried for years and it was a huge passion project for Sam Raimi.  They did not want to make this film for the sole purpose of grossing hundreds of millions of dollars and helping out the career they genuinely wanted to see Spiderman translated to the big screen.  The creators of The Grinch cannot with a straight face say that they passionately felt like a live action version of this film needed to be made.  Producers saw a huge marketable franchise to make money off of paid Jim Carrey handsomely.

I am not going to be one of those stodgy old critics that yell to the heaven and say there is no creativity in Hollywood anymore that everyone is lazy and the whole system is going down in a blaze of glory.  No I am going to be that stodgy critic that blames the marketing departments for being lazy and killing off quality films.  The poor screenwriters and directors who are pegged as lazy and uncreative still have to do their job.  The Grinch still needed to be written into a form that covers a two hour film and Ron Howard still had to decide how to make the film look.  I did not say that either of these people did a good job (they didn’t) but they still had to put in the effort.  The people that had the easy job were the marketing people.  Their campaign was dropping the name of the Grinch into all ads and relying on nostalgia to get adults and children into the theatre.  They didn’t have to create an interesting marketing strategy to make people take notice and they didn’t have to explain the film in 30 seconds bursts on TV or with a tagline in the newspaper.   They could have easily just had a picture of Jim Carrey as the Grinch and the movie would have made just as much money.  The person that is selling the movie is the actual movie going public because you are bringing in your love for the property.  Many times you hear the phrase “the movie sells itself” and this is what all studios want.

No creativity, no life to this poster, all that mattered was the name.

Remakes, sequels, adaptations, and movies based on toys, cartoons, board games or any other area that people might recognize the name has become the driving force of big movies in the last ten years.  We see fewer movies as new and fresh as an Indiana Jones or a Terminator.  Instead we see the next sequel to Indiana Jones, a prequel to Terminator or possibly a spinoff of one of these series.

The reason that a movie about Battleship is being made and they are rebooting/remaking known franchises is because it is EASY.  Sure these movies sell themselves and studios don’t have to waste money and time on anything but a sure thing but it is also easy for us as moviegoers.  No one likes seeing a movie that they don’t like.  You wasted your time and money on something that you didn’t care for or possibly even despised and people want to avoid that at all costs because time never moves slower than when you are stuck at a theatre watching a movie that isn’t working.  So instead of taking a chance on something totally original like Being John Malcovich, something that can’t be summed up in a few sentences or relying on your past knowledge, the movie going public goes to see the adaptation of a well known book or a reimaging (how many different words do we have for remakes?) of a TV show or cartoon.  This is safe because we have a very good chance of knowing what we are getting.  People who liked the TV show of Charlie’s Angels knows what the movie will be like if you liked the first few American Pie films lets go see the new one.

I am more often than not one of these people. I have two kids now and very little free time.  Although I will probably really love the new independent film that is playing at the art house I don’t know exactly what it is so instead I will go see Fast Five because I KNOW I like cars and explosions (and boy do I).  While the odds of these movies being something great are not good occasionally we get these blockbuster films built on nostalgia or name recognition to be a good film on their own merits.  I love Batman Begins and Dark Knight like most people and I will still say that Transformers was a fun film that brought out my inner eight-year old.  Yet chances are that you will get the same old trash that has been shoved down our throats for over a decade now.

The studio heads, writers and directors might always be the villains in many articles rallying against the “empty calorie” blockbuster films.  While they are an easy target and should shoulder some of the blame, the main villains are us for allowing such generic, committee created films to become runaway successes.  We are the ones who made How the Grinch Stole Christmas gross $260 million in the US alone.  Lets all make a pact to stop this before the in-development How to Expect When You are Expecting based on the non-fiction book for pregnant women gets made.