Former US President George Bush (the second one) was fond of saying, when confronted with criticism of his foreign policy, that he would be vindicated by history.
It is always a precarious and dangerous task to predict how events that are still unfolding will be viewed by subsequent generations. The human race does not have a great track record on predictions. Consider the infamous addendum to the rejection notice that the Decca record executive who turned down the Beatles gave: “We don’t like their sound. Groups with guitars are on the way out”.
So with this what I hope is sufficient hedging of bets taken care of, I turn the attention of this article to what I hope will be how this year we are about leave behind us is remembered for: the first shots of the sincerity insurrection.
"One thing that was bothering me as a cinema goer was that irony and post-modernism and films that were stylistically impressive seem to be the order of the day. I wanted it to be something that was authentic, not in inverted commas. I wanted it to be about sincerity." - Steve Coogan, co-writer, producer and star of Philomena.
Nothing screws the arts like trend chasing. A thing being like another thing is not, in itself, bad. But individuals of moderate or minor talent attempting to recreate the achievements of the extraordinarily skilled and gifted can lead to all manner of arse.
In the mid-80s, an influx of subversive, prodigiously talented and frequently British writers and artists seized control of the popular imagination in comic books. Seminal works such as The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Batman: Year One and The Killing Joke took characters and concepts which had begun life as four-color children’s books forty years earlier and invested them with levels of moral complexity, political subtext and emotional resonance which frazzled the brains of contemporary readers.
Now, with books that sold the metric fuck-ton of units these did, a whole generation of aspiring creators was going to be influenced - and hanging out for a piece of the action. However, this is where we run into our old friend the hack. For every Jeph Loeb and Ed Brubaker, who stepped into the field a generation later and told equally complex and dynamic stories, there were a slew of less talented imitators who saw the sombre tone and violence of the 80s works and came up with the equation that “nasty = important”.
Skip ahead another generation. It’s 2005 and a snappily dressed British fella named Christopher Nolan steps in to rescue the Batman film franchise from the landfill it had been lying in since Batman and Robin came out in 1997. His reboot, in creative cahoots with David Goyer and his brother Jonah, is considered a remarkable commercial and critical success. Each film makes more than the last, with total box office receipts scraping just under the three billion mark. It’s a trilogy about an orphan who brings hope to a hopeless city, creating a surrogate family around himself as he inspires millions to unite together and resist the attempts of a succession of colorful terrorists to drive them to nihilism.
Nolan also muted the color palette and showed more confronting levels of violence. Guess which elements of his films have been endlessly facsimiled by other, less talented, filmmakers?
It is impossible to spend any significant time on Deadline these days without reading of some studios attempt at a grimy, gritty reboot of any and all properties that they own. I’m sure a new incarnation of The Little Rascals that shines a harsh, unforgiving spotlight on juvenile armed gang violence is coming soon to multiplexes. Just called RASCALS probably, since one-word titles are in vogue.
Action movies, once the domain of wry wordsmiths like Shane Black, have had all humor surgically removed, the color schemes now range from murky grey to navy blue and the stunt cinematography mainly involves shaking the camera up and down (blame Paul Greengrass impressionists for this one).
Fun has no place in an adventure film, it has been decreed.
As film critic Ken Hanke once remarked “There is a marked tendency in the world to mistake the unpleasant for realism. [Grimness is] often mistaken for profundity — as is boring. It’s nasty-medicine-is-good-for-you syndrome. And I don’t say that the unpleasant and grim can’t be important and profound, but it’s not a guarantee of it. I have almost never seen boring justified.”
This is the state of affairs as we head into 2014. Even franchises that only a few years ago had strong comedy elements are getting darker. The most recent Spider-Man picture was much darker than the Sam Raimi directed adaptation only a decade ago. This year’s Thor sequel was fairly brutal, where the first once was a borderline comedy film.
That is not to put black marks against either film, but I hope I am not alone in wanting some more tonal variety back in the multiplex. Some McCartney to balance out all the Lennon.
This year, I felt the scales start to tip.
Richard Curtis, one of my writing idols and the most consistent purveyor of quality in contemporary entertainment, returned to the movies with About Time. It’s a time travel comedy co-starring Bill Nighy. If that isn’t enough to get you heading for your nearest multiplex, I don’t know what is.
SIDE-BAR: Bill Nighy is charisma personified, and one of the few actors whose presence in a significant part will, without fail, get me in front of a movie. A screenwriter friend of mine once described his appeal thusly: “He always plays the same part: ‘The sickest cunt on earth’!”.
Spilling over with charm, hilarious in ways both familiar and surprising and packing an emotional gut-punch that outstrips any of his previous work, About Time is my favourite film of 2013. Ten minutes before the end credits rolled, my eyes started to moisten and I bawled my eyes out through the rest of the film. Then while waiting for the bus outside the cinema, a song from the film came on my iPhone and the tears started again.
In between sneering reviews from much of the British press about the film’s “sentimentality” (Mark Kermode gave it a rare even handed notice) and showbiz press proclaiming it DOA in the US, it turned a tidy profit, grossing $80 million on a $12 million budget. When Little Miss Sunshine did a little better a few years back, it was hailed as a spectacular success story.
Philomena didn’t make me cry, but watching it was a deeply emotional experience, stirring in me depths of righteous indignation and anger I didn’t know I had. The climax had me stifling a fist pump and a cheer when Coogan’s character drops a particularly cutting line. It wears its heart on its sleeve, and Coogan’s protagonist takes the time-honored cinematic character journey from flippant cynicism to heartfelt sincerity. It’s also quite funny. While the film has just begun to open in most territories, it has already taken in $33 million and looks set to bring in a good deal more in the coming months.
The success of both these films, while dwarfed by the gargantuan dump trucks of cash that some of the murky, shaky, grim blockbusters are bringing in, gives me hope that those of us who like to go to the movies to see humanity’s best impulses triumph over its worst, for stories which are authentically moving, if not always happy (neither film I’ve discussed has a traditionally happy ending), have something to look forward to in the years ahead. I will leave the final words on this blog for 2013 to Richard Curtis, speaking at a recent BAFTA event.
"I’m sometime puzzled by the fact that when I write films about people falling in love, they are critically taken to be sentimental and unrealistic. And yet, four million people in London are in love tonight. And today, all around the world, hundreds of thousands of people will fall in love.
When someone writes a film about a soldier going AWOL and breaking into a flat and murdering a young pregnant woman - something which has happened twice in history - that film will be described as searingly realistic.
I don’t see how that’s true. I was on a beach in Southwell the other day and you along and you see fathers playing with their children, people in love holding hands, older couples having cups of tea with each other. No sign whatsoever of ruthless violence and hatred on that beach.
Now of course, I know from my work with Comic Relief about the dark heart of the UK, but that’s not the only story and I think stories of joy and love are definitely worth telling. And I’m a beneficiary of that.”
Happy New Year