Friday, April 8, 2011

Movie Hype that Won’t Win Points with Me

Word-of-mouth, whether it’s initiated by the major studios or internet pundits, can undeniably contribute to a film’s success or failure.  At the end of the day, however, it takes more than buzz to get my attention.  I’ve listed five of the biggest offenders below that underscore the eternal struggle of hype over substance.  I’ll preface these points by stating that all of the gripes listed below can also be regarded as amusing sidetrips or discussion points, but I don’t tend to base my like or dislike on these reasons alone, nor does this solely influence my filmgoing decisions.  Without further delay, I present to you my word-of-mouth red flags:
1.     Cameos -- With few exceptions, cameos do not make a film.  It is not a selling point to me if the guy who played Jason in the Friday the 13th movies appears for 5 seconds, or Stan Lee pops up in another Marvel superhero flick.  Even the most amusing cameos cannot make up for the paucity of anything remotely interesting during the rest of the film’s running time.  Likewise, the much-touted appearance of a post-retirement Leonard Nimoy in the upcoming third installment of the Transformers franchise is not likely to make the film any less execrable.

"I'm just in it for the royalties!"

2.      The movie was/wasn’t faithful to the comic book/novel – Books and film are different media.  End of story.  There can never be a direct 1 to 1 translation.  Something is always inevitably lost in the transition from book (or comic) to screen, with details being modified for sake of clarity or omitted completely.  Instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae (whether a character’s hair color matches the comic, the uniform is the right material, the plot maintains continuity with the story line set forth by multiple authors over the years, etc…), can the movie stand on its own, as if the source material didn’t exist?  In-jokes can be a great way to reach out to the faithful fans, but the casual viewer should not be required to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the last 25 years of a comic’s history to enjoy the movie.  The recent adaptations of V for Vendetta and Watchmen could never contain all of the nuances of Alan Moore’s densely written graphic novels, but they were sufficiently entertaining throughout and even sporadically thought provoking. 

"But what about the squid?"

3.      Trailers – It’s a well-known fact that trailers often contain movies’ best scenes and dialogue.  Case in point: Kick Ass.  With so many versions of the trailer floating around, many of the best scenes were already revealed, but the film’s tonal shifts were downplayed.  While I wouldn’t necessarily describe Kick Ass as a failure, the actual film never maintained the balance between action and dark comedy that the excellent trailers promised.  On the other hand, trailers can reveal very little about the movie, as Alfred Hitchcock did for The Birds. This can often do more to pique interest than simply plundering a film for out-of-context scenes and snippets of choice dialogue.

4.      It (stars/is directed by/is written by) ________. -- How many times have we all been lured by this one?  If a film’s marketing campaign is to be believed, the previous (presumably successful) work by an actor/director/writer will reliably predict the quality of their newest production.  “If XYZ directed it, it’s got to be good!”  Of course, we also know that everyone makes a mistake, especially filmmakers.  How else could you explain how Steven Spielberg went on from making some of the most influential films of the 70s and 80s to Hook?   And another thing, since I’m on this guilt by association rant: “From the studio that brought you _______” is not a foolproof sales pitch.  Never mind that 99% of the rest of the studio’s output was insipid tripe. 
From the studio that brough you Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs comes... Beverly Hills Chihuahua!
5.      The director really captured the style of _________ (70s blaxploitation flicks, 80s horror, 50s B movies, etc…). -- It’s okay to pay homage to other filmmakers and styles of the past, but when the emulated aesthetic becomes the film’s raison d'être, things turn problematic.  At what point does originality cease to matter?  There is a fine line between setting a nostalgic tone and ripping off the past because you have nothing new to say in the present.  This is not to say that this approach can never be effective, when taken in moderation.  Ti West’s clever, retro House of the Devil arrived on the scene looking like a lost B classic from the early 80s.  On the other hand, Larry Blamire's Grade Z homage The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra just seemed tedious and annoying.  In either case, my hope is that both filmmakers will take what they’ve learned and move on to explore greener pastures.
It's so...retro!

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