Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Media: Movie survival?

Will movie theaters survive is a common question in these times of the ongoing pandemic but another question predates the pandemic and is still asked: Will films survive beyond superhero flicks?




In 1978, Christopher Reeves and Margot Kidder captured the world's attention and imagination as Clark Kent (Superman) and Lois Lane in Richard Donner's SUPERMAN.  It was an exciting and rare event at the time.  And it's easy to forget just how major that moment was.  Yes, Superman had survived for decades as a beloved hero in multiple comic book titles.  He and Lois (and Jimmy and Perry) had been TV staples in 104 episodes of the 50s series ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN.  Chris and Margot added so much to the characters that their version has been the template for later versions such as LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and SUPERMAN & LOIS.  

The movie not only helped reshape the way we saw the characters, it also helped reshape what was possible for movies.  Their eyes infected with dollar signs as the 1978 film not only became a monster hit but also spawned a franchise, every studio head wished and hoped that they could come up with their own version. The first real currency maker after 1978 was Tim Burton's BATMAN in 1989.  That's how rare superhero films were -- especially successful ones -- and also how much more diverse the film landscape was at one point.  By 2019 (the last full release year before the pandemic), you had ten major superhero films (we're counting JOKER as well as the animated WONDER WOMAN: BLOODLINES). To watch basic cable on the weekends, you might think that all the studios have ever released were superhero films with the endless airings of The Avengers films, the Superman films (with Christopher Reeves, Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill as the leads), Batman films (starring Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck), Wesley Snipes' Blade films, The Justice League films, the Fantastic Four films, Spider-Man films (starring Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland), Aquaman films, Wonder Woman, Deadpool, X-Men, Wolverine, Venom, Shazam, Captain Marvel, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Daredevil, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, etc.  


While these films have turned many actors into stars (Hugh Jackman, for example), they've also utilized many film stars known for heavy acting:  Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Holly Hunter, Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas, Angela Bassett, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sally Field, Jamie Foxx, Patrick Stewart, Gary Oldman, Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Hopkins, Annette Bening, Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, Ewan McGregor, Marisa Tomei, Jake Gyllenhaal, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Tommy Lee Jones, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ian McKellen, Parker Posey, Stephen Dorff, Kris Kristofferson, Jessic Biel, John Travolta, Samantha Mathis, Roy Scheider, Mickey Rourke, Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, James Spader, Jude Law, Djimon Hounsou, Colin Farrel, Michael Clarke Duncan, Terrence Howard, Tim Roth, Liv Tyler, Edward Norton, Kurt Russell, Ben Kingsley, Kevin Bacon, Leslie Uggams, Michael Caine, Guy Pearce, Kristen Wiig, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Michelle Yeoh, Nick Nolte, Will Smith, Uma Thurman, Sam Elliott, Louis Jourdan, Richard Pryor, Faye Dunaway, Brenda Vaccaro, Peter O'Toole, Mariel Hemmingway, Jennifer Connelly, Benjamin Bratt, Kerry Washington, Sharon Stone, Terence Stamp, Heather Locklear, Billy Dee Williams, Kevin Costner, Patrick Wilson, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Vivica A. Fox, Peter Fonda, Kevin Spacey, Eva Marie Saint and Liev Schreiber, among others.

So is that what the future will hold?  Actors like Leo DiCaprio will have to take roles in superhero films to maintain their status as film actors?  Will Shirley MacLaine go down as the last living movie star not to have depended upon a superhero film to maintain her career?

Because more and more, people fret that the live action films the industry will produce are going to be little more than superhero flicks -- with origin stories as the cornerstone.

This weekend provided some hope with James Wan's MALIGNANT.  Yes, it's a horror film but there's nothing standard about horror in the hands of Wan.  A director with real vision, he's even managed to bring life into the superhero genre with a unique vision that startled in a manner similar to the wayt Tim Burton and Sam Raimi revolutionized 


Without giving away spoilers, MALIGNANT revolves around a shared body and overcoming personal demons.  Levels are explored and revealed and the camera work pulls you in.  As the theme is explored, it's done with striking visuals and a deft hand that allows strong performances in even small roles (such as Jake Abel's performance as Derek).  It also allows Annabelle Wallis to shine and radiate real personality.  

Real personality is sorely lacking in KATE -- or rather in its lead performance.  NETFLIX's straight-to- stream film stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead who recites her lines with a lack of awareness that both startles and frightens while making you wonder whether she's a human being or an animatronic?

In the past, 'performances' like this could be justified on some level. For example, despite all the unintentional laughter provoked by Anna Nicole Smith barking "stay out of my hairspace!" in SKYSCRAPER, you can understood how Anna Nicole's beauty led her to be cast in the first place.


Mary Elizabeth Winstead is not beautiful.  She's not even pretty.  Her looks are passable from the front -- unphotographable from the side and, no, she's not our favorite work of art, or even out top 200th favorite works of art.  She's a lousy actress.  At some point, she should have learned she needed to study and work on her craft.  And when you've been getting TV and film roles since 1997 and it's now 2021 and you're going to turn 37 this year, you really should also grasp that the moment has passed you by.  Skill and hard work could allow her potential as a character actress in supporting roles but it's really too late for her to become a star due to the fact that she wasted every chance she had and she was never talented or good looking.


She failed as the Huntress in BIRDS OF PREY.  That movie was so hideous that it's easy to overlook how bad Wisntead actually was.  Outside of Margot Robbie, nothing worked except for a sequence involving Jurnee Smollett and a young child.  But any fan of Huntress (one of our favorite comic book characters) knows Mary Elizabeth Winstead can't act.  

KATE survives in spite of her.  This update on the film noir classic DOA -- the protagonist has been poisoned and spends their final hours trying to figure out who poisoned them -- is directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan who plays with themes and motifs in a way that seems either subtle or as though he's lost interest.  But he does deliver a film that zips along and that leaves an impression.

Except for Winstead, it's a good impression.  Standouts include Woody Harrelson (who is charming in an very dark role) as well as, Jun Kunimura, Tadanobu Asano, Kazuyz Tanabe and Miyavi.  (If you're new to our writing, we don't cover child actors -- negatively or positively. So do not take our not noting a 17-year-old actress to be intended as an insult.) We don't blame Winstead's awful acting on him, not when KATE is her 29th film performance and none of the 28 directors who came before Cedric could get anything out of her either.

KATE is a good film.  It could have been a haunting one but that would have required a lead who could actually act.  A real actress (Uma Thurman, for example) could have gone many ways with the role -- including emphasizing the anger or going for grief or some sort of I-become-better-as-I-face death.  The latter, by the way, would be either the truest to the text or result in an on-the-nose performance with no real levels.  But it still would have provided something haunting.  KATE proves that a good director, even with a lousy lead actor, can turn in something watchable and entertaining.  MALIGNANT proves that there's still tremendous life in non-superhero films.  At least for now.


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