“All Is Lost” – The Procedure For Survival

If there are films that made me walk home with some sort of a stark resolution in mind, J.C. Chandor’s “All Is Lost” would definitely fall into that category. And, to be clear, I don’t have anything profound in mind, let alone anything that would influence my world-view in any way. I simply know now that I am not going to get on a boat (or a yacht for that matter) and stay on it for an extended period of time.

Ever.

Maybe if my life depended on it, but it would still be a tough call…

To elaborate, I don’t necessarily feel that way, because of the intensity and terror one would associate with being stranded in the middle of the ocean on a sinking boat, which nevertheless the film conveys very aptly. What seals the deal for me is the constant, relentless, incessant and nauseating rocking of the damn boat. Now, I have nothing against the use of ‘shaky cam’ and the resultant extremely kinetic photography (with “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield” as the most prominent examples), but “All Is Lost” went above and beyond in an effort to portray the extreme realism of a maritime survival story and made me genuinely sea sick. Now that I think about it, it should be seen as an achievement in film-making, but at the time I sure wasn’t feeling comfortable at all, and when halfway through the film a monstrous storm rolled in, I was genuinely terrified I wouldn’t keep my breakfast in.

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“All Is Lost” is a very straightforward story about a man (Robert Redford, the only credited actor in the entire film) and his boat. After a drifting shipping container crashes into the side of his yacht and causes the rushing water to destroy the radio and GPS, a truly remarkable adventure begins, where he would face the forces of nature and his own human limitations in this ultimate struggle for survival.

In all seriousness, “All Is Lost” is most probably the simplest film I have ever seen in my life. I can’t possibly imagine the script being more than 5 pages in length, and it is by no means a criticism on my behalf. The film sports exactly three lines of monologue, that’s done with in the opening 20 seconds, A couple of exclamations, and one perfectly placed and emotionally charged F-bomb. Quite honestly, this is how I would imagine a seasoned seaman would deal with the extreme predicament Robert Redford’s character is in – that is in silence. The artistic choice not to include any sort of cliché inner monologues explaining what the protagonist is doing at a particular moment in time works perfectly to elevate the realism of the film.

“All Is Lost” actually challenges the viewer to have at least a rudimentary understanding of what navigation might look like, or how to repair a gaping hole in a boat. The protagonist patiently and methodically follows a logical path and one by one deals with everything the universe throws at him and regardless of how severe things get at times, he acts as if he knew what he was doing all the time. The fact we don’t know anything about him only works in service of the story, I think, because it turns out we don’t really need to see the guy’s family to feel for him and root for his rescue.  We can maybe deduce some details about this character based on his age, the clothes he’s wearing, and so on. You might want to look for a ring on his finger and take a nose around the cabin when he’s trying to sort out yet another crisis in an effort to stay alive. You can choose to do that, and I believe a keen eye will catch enough details to put this character in context. I, however, was otherwise engaged breathing steadily and doing everything to watch the film and keep my stomach happy…

I am not exactly sure what to say about the technical aspects of “All Is Lost”, as it is very sparse in the craftsmanship department. In terms of the acting performance, though, Robert Redford deserves some props for his portrayal of this down-to-earth level-headed everyman sailor. He doesn’t say anything at all and his acting is very limited to frowning and calmly responding to whatever comes next, be it a hole in the boat, a tropical storm, or something else entirely. But there’s a greater progression subtly weaved into Redford’s performance, where we get to see how the logic and experience is keeping him alive only to be further tested by the string of unfortunate events nobody could possibly predict.

“All Is Lost” is simply a survival handbook with no decorations and fireworks. Mostly silent, shot almost like a documentary the film lacks any artistic slant and just focuses on what the character is doing. Sure, there are some shallow-depth-of-field shots here and there, but in general, every single second of the film’s running time serves a purpose. The film makes an astounding effort to show what could possibly go wrong in the open ocean, where you don’t have much at your disposal, and how to properly respond to every possible scenario. However, what lies beneath the procedural take on a survival story is the ultimate triumph of perseverance, logic, and human spirit. I sure have learned much from “All Is Lost” in terms of pure survival in the sea, like there are different types of flares for different purposes, and how small the chances are for someone in the distance to actually notice you. But the ultimate take-home message of this film is to always keep calm and follow the plan.

Well, I might be a bit more knowledgeable in the department of maritime survival, at least technically speaking, but I’m pretty sure If I were Robert Redford in “All Is Lost”, I would vomit myself to death days before the shipping container could even get close to my boat. And that, I think, is a valid lesson drawn from a cinematic experience…

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“12 Years a Slave” – a holocaust movie

Months back, when the first trailers for “12 Years a Slave” landed in the Internet, I’d lie if I said I was impressed. While I’m perfectly aware of the fact that film previews are pretty much a genre in their own right, to me everything pointed to Lincoln-esque Oscar bait that once again would try and play the race card in hope to win over those precious Academy votes. Such assessment seems quite harsh, especially in light of the film’s actual content and message, but at the time there was nothing that would leave clues about what one should really expect from “12 Years a Slave”.

Now, in retrospect, I tend to think the disparity between the bland, slogan-filled previews (that made sure you’d know how many high-profile actors were in it) about hugging and frowning, has worked perfectly in service of the film, as if to elevate the shock factor it carries inherently. Boy, even having read the reviews from across the pond before “12 Years a Slave” made its way to the British domain, I didn’t exactly grasp the extent of discomfort this viewing would bring.

The film is based upon a memoir by Solomon Northup and as the title suggests depicts the author’s ordeal as he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Interestingly, it is not the first film adaptation of “12 Years a Slave”, as it was televised as “Solomon’s Northup’s Odyssey” by PBS with Avery Brooks as the lead and I presume it never received much of an attention. Steve McQueen’s vision, on the other hand, is a completely different beast and whilst being a painful experience, it was aimed at the widest audience possible in hopes to finally approach the subject matter with appropriate sensitivity. “12 Years a Slave” takes an extremely naturalistic approach in retelling the harrowing story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a free-born black American, a skilled fiddler, who one day finds himself deceived, drugged, sold into slavery and smuggled to Louisiana, where he would spend over a decade being mistreated, beaten, denigrated, and brought to the very brink of sanity by the vengeful southern overlords.

The film is literally stacked with brilliant performances and contrary to my initial expectations, they all work in service of the story and the film’s takeaway message (maybe with the small exception of Brad Pitt, who takes his role a bit over the top, but that’s a topic for a separate occasion). Moreover, I’d say that despite the extremely difficult subject matter, some of the actors, like Paul Dano (portraying a vindictive overseer), or Michael Fassbender, who embodies the ultimate evil incarnate as the self-indulgent, violent and borderline mental plantation owner Epps, have really put themselves out there for the sake of the cinematic naturalism.

McQueen’s direction initially felt completely alien to me and only after some time I grew acclimatized to what I thought was a theatrical delivery of lines and (too) extreme emoting from the lead characters. I don’t necessarily hold it as a downside to the entire experience, because I presume it has more to do with the fact the dialogue was taken more or less verbatim from a 170-year-old book. Yet, it did require some effort on my part to stay immersed in the story. Still, my inability to come to terms with the flow of dialogue in “12 Years a Slave” does not neuter the performances in any way, and in a film like that the acting can (and does) add massively to the impact.

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And the impact is what lies at the heart of “12 Years a Slave”. The combination of the acting performances with the imagery really does build a horrid picture of what was a reality to millions. There’s a clear point to everything we get to see on screen, from the violent whippings, through brutal rapes, all the way to the extended sequences of moral and mental belittlement of the main characters. I found it even more striking to witness in detail the gruesome imagery put against a backdrop of stunning vistas and otherwise undisturbed life on the plantation.

It’s simply amazingly horrifying to see how life simply goes on while people are dying, being abused, or relentlessly tortured. The camera does not look away from the macabre, which we can notice the minute Solomon is kidnapped and beaten continuously for good five minutes. I would go as far as to say that “12 Years a Slave” turns into porn with the way imagery is delivered, the detail with which it’s presented, along with the numbing onslaught on the viewer’s senses. There’s no other reason, other than disturbing the audience, to show a single take of a person suffocating for 10 minutes, or a young girl having flesh flayed off her back by being continually and tirelessly flogged. In the end, it is really powerful to witness this horror additionally blown out by the authenticity of the source material. In combination with otherwise beautiful shots and very compelling acting, this film becomes nothing short of unforgettable.

The only nit-pick I’d have about “12 Years a Slave” would have to do with the film’s premise as a whole of taking a free man and putting him in a situation that is completely alien to him. Sure, I can’t argue with the source material, but it could be all too easy to dismiss the film in its entirety based on Solomon Northup’s relatability as a character. For some, it might be easier to identify with Solomon and root for him, because he doesn’t belong in slavery, which in itself is a problem, because none of those people belong there. It’s difficult to look past the main character and notice the countless thousands of people born in shackles never to taste freedom, because we get so invested in Solomon’s personal ordeal. Nevertheless, I personally didn’t have a problem with that, but more so, I found the lead character to be more of a vessel to show all those atrocities, as he was himself shocked to witness and live them. It does remain an easy target for potential attack, and we all know how easy it is to discredit a film.

While this particular piece of cinema has its own share of problems, it does not change the fact that it is a quite unique cinematic experience. I think Steve McQueen (whose other work I have yet to see) purposefully and relentlessly uses everything he has at his disposal to have this film become the landmark piece in the discussion on slavery and racial abuse in American history. With the visuals, photography, performances, and even the score, “12 Years a Slave” will surely be held as the definitive take on the shameful chapter in the history of America.

I certainly did not expect “12 Years a Slave” to show the day-to-day life in servitude in such a harsh detail. There’s no dancing around the issue here, and the film does not waste a minute to sugar-coat the brutality, or look away from the violence, that for once was shown with gruesome attention to detail. I realize that in the age of political correctness and apologetic stances of white societies, whose ancestors were complicit in this travesty telling the truth might be difficult, but I think it needs to be said that the reason “12 Years a Slave” is allowed to go to such lengths in portraying slavery for what it was, has to do with the film-maker being black himself. Before you say anything, let me add that certain problems require specific sensitivity, and a degree of personal engagement in the subject matter. It does sounds like racial profiling, but Ron Howard, or Steven Spielberg would never create a film like that. In fact, if you look at the latter film-maker’s last piece – “Lincoln” – you’ll know exactly what I mean here.

Granted, you could throw “The Butler” in response to my claim, a film I was thoroughly disappointed by, as it was nothing more than an Oscar bait with no soul of its own, that instead of adding to the discussion on the repercussions of racial segregation in America, muddled everything with the over-extended scope and volume of sub-plots. In the end, I have to add that in order to make “12 Years a Slave” look as it does now versus what it could be in somebody else’s hands (i.e. a run-of-the-mill uplifting biopic geared towards bagging big awards), a pivotal prerequisite for Steve McQueen was to have a huge pair of balls. He didn’t have much to lose, as he is still ‘making it’ in the industry, and he clearly didn’t care about the statuettes he could collect for his film. Ironically enough, the fact “12 Years a Slave” pulls all the stops and aims at evoking discomfort and (in some cases well-earned) guilt might just help McQueen get recognition as a film-maker.

I don’t know if “12 Years a Slave” was the best film of the year, but it is an important one. I’d say it needs to be seen by everyone, so that the discussion is kept alive instead of being eventually swept under the rug of ancient history. None of the holocausts in our history should be allowed to be forgotten and we finally need to see thing for what they were. “12 Years a Slave” is most definitely not an easy film to sit through, but it might be what is needed to finally have an adult conversation about this particular chunk of the history of mankind.

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Filling The Blanks in 2013: “The Bling Ring”

Directed by Sofia Coppola, “The Bling Ring” can only be characterized as weird. As far as I can recall, it seems to have been a fair bit of buzz surrounding this new release from the mind that gave us the phenomenal “Lost in Translation”, but shortly after its Cannes premiere, there was nothing but radio silence.  I failed to see it during the very limited run it received in the UK, and as a result it was only quite recently that I finally caught up with “The Bling Ring”. And there’s something to be said about this particular film.

In short, “The Bling Ring” is a story (somewhat grounded in reality, so I hear) about a group of teenagers living on the outskirts of Los Angeles, who form a gang that burgles houses of high-profile celebrities. And that would probably be it in terms of the synopsis, because there’s not much else going on in “The Bling Ring”, so the film in its entirety plays it shockingly straight. As viewers, we get to follow a bunch of high-schoolers with larger-than-life personalities (portrayed by no-name actors like Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Claire Julien, plus Vera Farmiga’s younger sister Taissa, and Emma Watson, who strangely enough plays a side-line character to the story, even though she must have been the top-billed actor on the project) while they take a shortcut to their ‘American Dream’ by breaking into people’s houses and stealing their designer clothes, jewellery and other knick-knacks.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to draw a parallel between “The Bling Ring” and Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” as they both take on a very uncomfortable subject of contemporary youth and their brain-washed aspirations created by the popular media, tabloids and social networking. Although I seem to remember not receiving “Spring Breakers” very well, as that film takes an extreme stance on the problem and is definitely made to push people’s buttons, now that I saw Sofia Coppola’s two cents, I believe I might want to revisit “Spring Breakers” and take it from a different angle.

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“The Bling Ring” most certainly has something interesting to say about American teenagers and the downward spiral they’re on, although I’m afraid that this problem is of global proportions and it shouldn’t be brushed off as confined to the US middle class. The reliance of (not only) the younger generations on social media, Facebook addiction, or obsessive following of celebrities, who by the way have never done anything besides being famous, cannot lead to anything positive. Quite expectedly, the way people nowadays focus their efforts on making other people perceive them differently can and does warp their perception of the world, aspirations and dreams. And this is where the film-makers could go balls out and provide the much needed commentary. However, I remain unconvinced that “The Bling Ring” has succeeded in that regard. In hindsight, I think “Spring Breakers” might have been more on point, and although it was very uncomfortable to watch, Harmony Korine deserves more credit that I might have given him in the first place.

Sofia Coppola seems to have strayed away from commenting on the problem, and the only thing we see in “The Bling Ring” is how the group of characters gets together, how they google Paris Hilton’s address (or any other celebrity), go for a ‘shopping spree in her closet, steal some cash, and end up in a night club drinking cosmos and taking extremely fake-looking posed selfies. Rinse-repeat… well, up to a point. And this is mostly why I find “The Bling Ring” strange in a way, because I can’t quite tell, whether it is a conceit on Coppola’s part to purposefully show these characters as shallow, despicable young adults, or was it simply a sloppy writing job…

From the very opening shots I found it very difficult to come to terms with the artificial performances and accents, but the more I think about it, I’d be willing to take it as done by design. Now, I am no teenager, but (as frightening it might seem) I can take those performances as only moderately exaggerated and archetypical, because it might just be, how some young people behave nowadays. So, the minute I decided to bench my doubts about the film’s naturalism in performances, I could see its message a bit more clearly. It still is not laid out in the open for the taking, but it doesn’t take much to add two and two together.

Without a doubt, the nihilistic and brainwashed attitude towards life abundant among the younger generations makes for an interesting topic for discussion. In fairness, we need more films (or commentary, in general) on this subject to properly explore this problem, as it is indeed a scary notion to postulate, that today’s teenagers will one day rule this world. As it stands, the society has become so self-indulgent and narcissistic that it’s nigh on impossible to stay unaffected by these obsessions of self-promotion and the constant need of affirmation.

It baffles me how it is no longer enough to live your life, find something you love and do it, find a partner to go through life with, and so on… Nowadays, we need to seek evaluation from our peers by posting every single thing we do on the Internet, as if it was imperative to rub our lives in everyone’s faces. And it doesn’t even stop there, because we no longer really have friends, but merely a list of names, who we want to see the pictures that we post. Add to that the pressure to achieve and ‘be successful’ and you’ll find yourself in a world that finds the characters from “The Bling Ring” quite average.

In my view, the main problem that “The Bling Ring” tries to address, is the gap between our hugely overblown aspirations in life, and are actual aptitude that would never be enough to take us where we want to be. However, in the age of dumbing down the expectations in schools, lowering the bars, or whatever you want to call it, we raise people to grow up with embedded sense of entitlement, and as a result, they will never be capable of noticing and comprehending the fact they most likely will never lead the lives of celebrities. It becomes even more unbearable when you sit down and think about why people like Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan are as famous and followed like goddesses in today’s world, because they are just famous for being famous. Multiply that by thousands of names and all of a sudden, the entire modern society is being founded in bullshit. The question now is, whether the young minds are apt enough to see through all these lies… Because you can’t simply take a short cut to success, even though the tabloids and E! Entertainment would like you to think otherwise.

Sadly, almost none of that commentary is found in “The Bling Ring”, which would be fine, if people like me were the target audience for this film. Well, I don’t really need to be reminded of how shallow the society wants me to be, or how it wants me to navigate my life, so that I’m perceived by my peers in the best way possible. I know that and I don’t care either way, but it’s the young minds on the brink of adulthood who really need that kind of experience and if you count on them going out of their way to find the film’s message, you’re in for a disappointment. It’s just silly to assume that the target audience for “The Bling Ring” will immediately see this film as a mockery of the lifestyle they so crave.

This is where I’m torn on “The Bling Ring”. A part of me wants this film to have a meaning underneath the superficial character development, the bare-bone plot, and strangely artificial performances. But at the same time, I owe it to myself to judge this film based on what it is, and not on what it wants to be. And what it is, is a forgettable attempt at addressing an important issue, because it takes a bit too much digging to get something out of it.

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One Last Look At 2013: The Real Winners And Losers…

With all the box office dollars thoroughly counted and stored safely in the pockets of sequel-loving, originality-hating studio executives (who in their spare time club baby seals… or is it too far? I’m sure they would if it generated profit) the time has come for the long overdue look at the state of big screen entertainment. It also comes in light of recent news that “The Hunger Games – Catching Fire” overtook “Iron Man 3” in the (American) box office and ended up on top of the charts, but I think I’d like to have a look myself to see how things really are; especially when you factor in the recent ‘fantastic’ revelations that despite the underwhelming summer, 2013 was the most profitable financial year for the film industry.

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It’s no secret that bean-counters love to sugar-coat everything, as 2013 was also a year of the record low ticket sales, but nobody seems to go out of their way to put emphasis on it at all. What it does to the general state of cinema, and how far down the toilet the industry has gone, is a topic for a separate discussion (on which, again, I will give my two cents in due time), but let’s have one last look at the box office charts for the 2013 and see where the real winner is, who lost the most, and who holds the most promise in terms of producing profitable entertainment.

General Remarks

A quick glance at the yearly Box-Office Charts (boxofficemojo.com is a good place to go to have a look) will immediately reveal how sad things really are. As an advocate of original ideas I can only weep at the realization that out of the ten most profitable films of 2013, as many as 7 (6, if you factor out “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” due to it being a chunk of a bigger film and not a sequel per se) are sequels, reboots, remakes or other forms of cashing in on previous financial successes.

Ordered by US Box Office returns ($M)

  1. “The Hunger Games – Catching Fire” (413.8)
  2. “Iron Man 3” (409)
  3. “Despicable Me 2” (368)
  4. “Frozen” (317.3)
  5. “Man of Steel” (291)
  6. “Monsters University” (268.5)
  7. “Gravity” (256.2)
  8. “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” (242.2)
  9. “Fast and Furious 6” (238.7)
  10. “Oz The Great and Powerful” (234.9)

Somehow I’m not surprised that the big summer popcorn munchers ended up on top. After all, they are targeted at the widest demographics and they all piggy-back off of other huge releases (i.e. “Iron Man 3” surfing on the tidal wave created by “The Avengers”). However, this list only factors the US market, which I will not deny is the most important for the industry, and it generates the bulk of the profits in many cases. When looked at in global terms, the list looks slightly different:

Ordered by Worldwide Box Office Returns ($M)

  1. “Iron Man 3” (1215.4)
  2. “Despicable Me 2” (935.1)
  3. “The Hunger Games – Catching Fire” (846.8)
  4. “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” (808.2)
  5. “Fast and Furious 6” (788.7)
  6. “Monsters University” (743.6)
  7. “Frozen” (711.9)
  8. “Gravity” (670.7)
  9. “Man of Steel” (668)
  10. “Thor – The Dark World” (630.9)

Now, the list looks even grimmer than previously, because only 2 titles on it are truly original (“Gravity” and “Frozen”) and once again “Iron Man 3” ends up on top. Though, bear in mind that those results might possibly be a bit misleading due to vastly different release dates for some countries, but it won’t change the fact that the big summer releases generated the most ticket sales worldwide.

However, one should also take into account that all of those big releases (both in US and worldwide Box Office Top 10) came out with their concurrent 3D versions, which come at a larger price per ticket. With the 3D market being in range of the 10% of the overall ticket sales, it could mean that some films seen by more people have generated less profit. I can’t possibly know the extent of this phenomenon, as I have no access to the relevant data, but (in worldwide terms) the 2D-only releases start showing up only around the 20th mark (“The Hangover Part 3”, and “The Conjuring” at the 24th).

Profits

This is where things get interesting and really sad at the same time. Well, in this day and age it becomes more and more relevant to take note of the simple fact, that the highest-grossing blockbusters cost a fortune to make. Therefore, at times, what seemingly looks like a good financial result and a promising cash-cow franchise, might not exactly be as ‘blockbustery’ as one might like to think. Below you’ll find the Top 10 most profitable films of 2013 (US and worldwide):

Top 10 Highest Profits US ($M)

  1. “Jurassic Park 3D” (392.4)
  2. “Despicable Me 2” (292)
  3. “The Hunger Games – Catching Fire” (283.8)
  4. “Iron Man 3”  (209)
  5. “Frozen” (167.3)
  6. “Gravity” (156.2)
  7. “The Conjuring” (156.2)
  8. “The Heat” (116.6)
  9. “We’re The Millers” (113.4)
  10. “Identity Thief” (139)

 Top 10 Highest Profits Worldwide ($M)

  1. “Iron Man 3” (1015.4)
  2. “Despicable Me 2” (859.1)
  3. “The Hunger Games – Catching Fire” (716.8)
  4. “Fast And Furious 6” (628.7)
  5. “The Hobbit – The Desolation of Smaug” (583.2)
  6. “Gravity” (570.7)
  7. “Frozen” (561.9)
  8. “Monsters University” (543.6)
  9. “Jurassic Park 3D” (463)
  10. “Thor – The Dark World” (460.9)

(The values do not take into account the marketing costs not included in the production budget; therefore at least the values worldwide could suffer from greater uncertainty)

And all of a sudden, instead of the big (and costly summer release), the most profitable film on the American ground is the re-release of “Jurassic Park” in 3D. It is the pinnacle (the PINNACLE!!!) of taking the easy way, because you can’t possibly think of an easier way to make money than by taking a classic, throwing 10 million dollars at it to make it 3D, and releasing it again theatrically. It’s the perfect way to utilize the gimmick of 3D and earn an easy buck.

However, looking past that scathing example of the sad state of cinema, one would notice immediately that instead of the biggest titles, the bulk of the list is made up by smaller and cheaper genre films like “The Conjuring” or “The Heat”. So, at least within a confined market (even as big as the US) things can take a completely different look when the gargantuan production budgets are taken out of the equation. Quite expectedly though, everything goes (more or less) back to normal when the global profits are included, simply due to the numbers getting bigger and the budget values becoming a smaller percentage in comparison. Nevertheless, “Jurassic Park 3D” still makes an appearance in what would be a re-write of the Box Office Top 10.

Bang for the Buck

Here’s an interesting idea: let’s level the playing field now and see how things are, when the luxury of having a big budget is taken away. It is quite unfair and painfully true that the biggest blockbusters are seldom small budget releases, as they don’t get the marketing at the level of “The Avengers” and are more often than not ORIGINAL ideas, not rehashings and sequels. Therefore, I decided to see how much bang for the buck last year’s releases actually had. To do that, divide the film’s profit by its budget; the generated value depicts the amount of dollars that are generated as profit by one dollar of the budget. If the value is 0, the film broke even, if it’s 1, then it made a dollar of profit per dollar of budget. In other words, you spend one dollar and get two dollars back (the net profit in your pocket is 1).

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Bang for the Buck Top 10 US (Dollar per Production Dollar)

  1. “Jurassic Park 3D” (39.2)
  2. “The Purge” (20.5)
  3. “Insidious Chapter 2” (15.7)
  4. “A Haunted House” (15)
  5. “Kevin Hart – Let Me Explain” (11.9)
  6. “The Conjuring” (5.9)
  7. “Jackass Presents – Bad Grandpa” (5.8)
  8. “Despicable Me 2” (3.84)
  9. “Mama” (3.77)
  10. “The Best Man Holiday” (3.1)

Bang for the Buck Top 10 Worldwide (Dollar per Production Dollar)

  1. “Jurassic Park 3D” (46.3)
  2. “Insidious Chapter 2” (31.2)
  3. “The Purge” (28.8)
  4. “A Hunted House” (23)
  5. “The Conjuring” (14.9)
  6. “Kevin Hart – Let Me Explain” (11.9)
  7. “Despicable Me 2” (11.3)
  8. “Mama” (8.8)
  9. “Jackass Presents – Bad Grandpa” (8.7)
  10. “We’re The Millers” (6.3)

Boom! No Blockbusters in sight! Instead we’ve got the mini-budget successes with the likes of “The Purge”, “Insidious Chapter 2” and “A Haunted House” leading the pack. Well, sort of… the shameful re-release of “Jurassic Park” still got the biggest bang for one dollar, but hey…

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Interestingly, out of the titles normally found among the high-grossing blockbusters, only “Despicable Me 2” was left standing, and it might not be a stretch to call this film the most successful film of the 2013. Also, it goes to show that maybe comic book actioners and destruction porn are not the best way to create entertainment and get a solid return on your investment. I’d say, cheap genre films are just as good, if not better than any “Iron Man”. Of course, you can also re-release “Gladiator” in 3D next year… or “Schindler’s List”…

The Biggest Bombs

Last, but not least, here’s the Top 10 of the biggest financial disappointments of the year:

Top 10 Biggest Box Office Flops US ($M)

  1. “47 Ronin” (-138.6)
  2. “Jack The Giant Slayer” (-129.8)
  3. “The Lone Ranger” (-125.7)
  4. “R.I.P.D.” (-96.4)
  5. “Pacific Rim” (-88.2)
  6. “White House Down” (-76.9)
  7. “After Earth (-69.5)
  8. “Turbo” (-52)
  9. “Ender’s Game” (-48.3)
  10. “Walking With Dinosaurs” (-46.3)

Top 10 Biggest Box Office Flops Worldwide ($M)

  1. “47 Ronin” (-68.8)
  2. “R.I.P.D.” (-51.7)
  3. “Ender’s Game” (-21.1)
  4. “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” (-2.6)
  5. “Jack The Giant Slayer” (2.7)
  6. “Delivery Man” (5.2)
  7. “The Host” (8.2)
  8. “Walking With Dinosaurs” (17.9)
  9. “The Mortal Instruments – City o Bones” (20.2)
  10. “Don Jon” (24.4)

And there you go… “47 Ronin” was hereby unequivocally crowned as the biggest bomb of the year topping the charts both in the US and globally. Note that the worldwide list excludes some films that did not get a proper global release in 2013 (“The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Lone Survivor”, or “Grudge Match”) and it would be unfair, to say the least, to include them. Anyway, just by looking at the discrepancies between the two lists, one can clearly see that the so-called biggest flops according to the various sources have managed to soften the blow when they hit the international market. So, even though the Americans didn’t like “The Lone Ranger”, “Pacific Rim”, “White House Down”, or “After Earth”, the world didn’t let those titles stand in the cold for too long. Interestingly, only four titles still failed to break even after the worldwide profits had been included. And once again, M. Night Shyamalan got saved by the international market, as his “After Earth” did not end up anywhere near the list of shame in global terms.

Conclusions

Having looked at the box office returns for the year 2013, one could quickly make an argument that the big blockbusters and comic book movies have been the most successful, but upon closer look, I no longer think it’s the case. Having looked at the B/O revenues, profits, and profitability per production dollar, there’s only one title that kept its place near the top in all of these ranks – “Despicable Me 2”. I’d say, according to me it was the most comprehensively successful film of the year.

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It saddens me to see that originality seems to be on the brink of extinction, but it is the world we live in and we have to make the best of it. I love to see, that genre films are still in good shape turning profits and entertaining the likes of me. I’d still do without the ghastly 3D re-releases of classics, because they’re classics for a reason. Who knows, maybe this year we’ll see more creative ideas on screen… Because judging by what’s in store for 2015, things will get really brutal.

Well, Happy (belated) Birthday to me…

It’s quite amazing, because to me it doesn’t really feel that long, but exactly a year and two days ago I published my first post on this blog (the review of “The Impossible”). Having now gone back to read it over once more I realized how much this hobby of mine has changed me over the course of this year. Not only did I get to hone my writing skills, but also I think I now have a clearer idea as to where this blog is going to go. With the added bonus hindrance of having limited time, I definitely see myself taking a more relaxed look at the new stuff coming out in cinemas and focusing more on different types of articles. Especially when I take into account, that the most popular entry of mine (“The wife that refused to die hard…”) has nothing to do with being a straight-up review, it might just be the thing I would be doing more often. Continue reading

“American Hustle” has too many fantastic performances for its own good

It might come across a bit strange, but almost directly after the credits to “American Hustle” started rolling (or even earlier, during the film) I felt this pulsating need to go back home and watch Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”. I find it even stranger, given that up to that point I have never seen it before, but somehow the newest addition to David O. Russell’s filmography pointed me to take it off the shelf, so that I could once and for all cross it off my list of shame.

But wait… There’s more. Only after I got round to see Scorsese’s epic, my opinion on “American Hustle” started to look more positive; before I was quite convinced the film was mediocre at best, but seeing it in context of “Casino” made me rethink my stance, which I find disturbingly amusing, as never in my life I would have thought those two films could have so much in common. I don’t quite know whether David O. Russell had planned for this, but assuming it was all coincidental, “American Hustle” becomes more and more amusing as a story.

I seem to remember “American Hustle” being touted as ‘the next big thing’ in the run-up to last year’s Academy Awards, all the while the hype was being drummed up for “Silver Linings Playbook”. Given how I loved that film, and how I regard “The Fighter” as an all-around phenomenal piece of film-making, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that at that time my expectations for “American Hustle” were already considerable in size and could only grow from there. Seriously, having written and directed not one, but two stunning tour de force films in a row, I thought David O. Russell would bring it home for the third time in this period drama(slash)comedy loosely based on the ABSCAM story.

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If, like me, you somehow missed out on the 70’s and/or were born in a country, where no-one would give a rat’s ass about the news from the US, then the word ABSCAM would most likely mean nothing to you. And I knowingly chose not to investigate this topic before watching “American Hustle”, as if to enhance the theatrical experience. The story is only (as the opening shot states explicitly) partially grounded in reality and in it we meet a pair of con artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who when caught red-handed by a hot-blooded FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), are given ‘an offer they can’t refuse’. In order to regain their freedom and walk away unscathed, the pair agrees to help DiMaso in setting up a massive sting operation, wherein they would bring a bunch of corrupt political figures down on charges of corruption. In order to achieve that, they would have one of the FBI agents pose as an Arab sheikh, who would like to ‘donate money’ to the cause of turning Atlantic City into the East Coast’s Las Vegas (hence ABSCAM – AraB SCAM, I believe). Little do they realize, the sheer scale of the operation in combination with the volatile nature and agent DiMaso’s delusions of grandeur with the added bonus of Rosenfeld’s eavesdropping mentally unstable wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) being thrown into the mix, the group might end up with a bit too much on their plates.

I think the best way to describe my feelings towards “American Hustle” is to use the word ‘confused’. Because I couldn’t possibly believe that a story with such a stellar cast of high profile actors directed (and penned) by a high-calibre persona of David O. Russell could come across as bland, but yet it did. My ridiculously hyped expectations might have had something to do with it, I won’t deny that, but I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by what ”American Hustle” had to offer. It’s not that the film lacks in any way, because the performances alone are simply stunning, but overall it drags sometimes and all too often goes into boring territory. It only goes to show that it’s not enough to be friendly with a bunch of ‘hot actors’ (apart from the ones mentioned, the list includes Jeremy Renner as a good-hearted, but corrupt mayor, and Robert De Niro as a high profile mobster) to produce a great film. I realize that David O. Russell simply likes to work with those guys, and they like to work with him (naturally), but I fear that from this point onwards, his films might start their slow descent towards well-cast clichés.

What “American Hustle” could really use is a compelling story, because as it stands, the plot is sufficiently weak to be foreshadowed by the performances alone. There’s nothing wrong with that, because I will always appreciate Christian Bale’s very physical and wholehearted commitment to the role, or Jennifer Lawrence’s way of delivering dialogue that makes me believe she actually is not ‘all there’ emotionally; but in the longer terms, beyond the signature O. Russell’s small talk, there’s not much that would make “American Hustle” memorable, let alone a classic. The main problem I had with the film’s story lies in its seemingly complex nature that is additionally hidden within the vast network of interpersonal issues between the characters. This is where I would go on to postulate that David O. Russell was not the best man to bring the ABSCAM story to the screen in a compelling manner, as in my opinion, he got his priorities wrong while making “American Hustle”.

In his defence, he does know how to flesh out a character and make it pulsate with life, but in a film like that, which is story-driven, the characters need to know their place and work in service of the story, and instead their powerful nature (and Amy Adams’ cleavage) diverts attention from what should actually be the focus of the story – the elaborate con. And there’s only one person I could think of, that could film a story like that (especially in a period setting) and do it justice, and it’s Martin Scorsese. And this is where it gets weird…

After a quick google search it has become clear that I am certainly not the first one to drop Scorsese’s name in a review of “American Hustle” with the word ‘rip-off’ featuring prominently in some of the write-ups out there. While for a seasoned veteran critic it is almost second nature to draw parallels between “American Hustle” and “Goodfellas”, or “Casino”, I think there’s more to this than meets the eye, simply because from where I was sitting, I felt a very strong Scorsese vibe emanating from O. Russell’s newest piece, and I have never even seen “Casino” before. Surely, you could postulate “Casino” being a rip-off in its own right drawing from “Goodfellas”, but I think it would be doing Scorsese’s work a disservice.

If you look through Scorsese’s filmography, you’ll immediately notice that among the myriad ‘instant classics’ he directed, there’s only a handful he has also written the script for. And that handful includes “Mean Streets”, “Goodfellas”, and “Casino”. This big trio is truly representative of something you could call ‘Scorsese’s style’, because of the creative control he assumed over those particular films.  Therefore, I believe it is unjust to call any of those film’s rip-offs based on their recurring features, like the multi-personal narrative style and multi-faceted house-of-cards-like plotlines converging into a massive climax.

Now, putting “American Hustle” against the collective backdrop of stylistic traits present in “Casino”, or “Goodfellas” turns this film into a completely different beast; now it’s homage to Scorsese’s work and everything starts to make a bit more sense. Initially, I couldn’t get past the alien feeling of the narrative, or the scattered plotline, but in that context it seems David O. Russell made those choices knowingly to evoke the atmosphere of a mob epic drama; yet he couldn’t restrain himself from ‘doing his thing’ with the characters. In effect, “American Hustle” looks to me now a bit like a poor-man’s “Casino”, but at least I can put this film in context. Without that stylistic reference, nothing about this film makes much sense and it boils down to a bag of performances (top-notch, mind you); which is not enough for me to call a film ‘great’. It still is very interesting to me to regard “American Hustle” as inspired by Scorsese’s work and it certainly makes me wonder, what it would be like if the roles were reversed. I most certainly would love to see Scorsese’s attempt at writing characters and dialogue in homage to David O. Russell. Would you?

Letterboxd

Wrapping Up 2013

Now that we are fully committed to the New Year, I think I owe the 2013 a proper farewell kiss. Ironically, not too long from now, this very blog will be turning one, but I decided to separate those two occasions and simply devote this entry to looking back through time in ‘calendar’ terms. To me, personally, this year was full of fantastic developments and major changes, but film-wise, some would say, the 2013 was a bit underwhelming.

Looking at the box office revenues and the onslaught of sequels, it’s hard to disagree with the notion that (globally) cinema has seen better days. Still, the indie scene is flourishing and has been supplying us with food for thought, as if to counter the sensory overload brought about by the Hollywood money-making machine. However, I think highly of some of this year’s big budget productions and can’t help but admit I had a lot of fun watching them. I have had, unfortunately, my fair share of disappointment, but nevertheless the year 2013 shall not go down in my memory as one of the worst on record, at least that’s certain. I just have to come to terms with the idea that comic book movies are here to stay as replacement for the good ol’ actioners I grew up with, and that rehashing old ideas is the thing of the future.

In order to complete the ritual burial of 2013 (Viking style, of course), I decided – just like everybody else – to come up with my Top 10 Films I enjoyed the most in 2013, similar in vein to what I’ve done to summarize the first six months of the year. Bear in mind, that the artistic quality is only one of the factors that I consider. I make a point of not rating the films in my reviews (with the exception of Letterboxd that I joined recently), because for me a film can speak to me intellectually, artistically, or in terms of pure entertainment. And let’s not forget about those films that strike a special note in my heart, even when they are otherwise disappointing (“Elysium”, I’m looking at you).

Here we go:

10. “Evil Dead” / “Star Trek Into Darkness”

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I couldn’t decide which one I liked more and I couldn’t imagine my list of this year’s favourites without either of them. “Evil Dead”, directed by a débutante Fedé Alvarez, was just a pure adrenaline rush that, whilst being a remake, elbowed its way into my heart.  I am normally very sceptical when it comes to redoing classics, but this one certainly delivered on all levels, with strong emphasis on the gory, visceral entertainment that made my legs shake on my way home from the screening.

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“Star Trek Into Darkness”, directed by J.J. Abrams (a.k.a. The Lens Flare Guy) also spoke to me on a visceral level, but stroke completely different notes. Forgetting it’s a sequel to a reboot to an established franchise, this Sci-Fi epic was filled with action and adrenaline in its entirety. Surely, this film had its flaws and part of my enjoyment must have had something to do with the usual mystery J.J. Abrams veils his films with, but “Star Trek Into Darkness” was still pretty awesome.

9. “Man Of Steel”

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Some say that “Iron Man 3” was the best comic book film of the year, to which I say ‘Hell, no!’. I really loved Zack Snyder’s approach at resurrecting the Superman franchise, and that’s no small feat considering the level of disrepute it was brought down to over the years with abysmal sequelitis. “Man of Steel” has definitely been airbrushed by Chris Nolan, and partly because of this attempted grounding Superman’s mythos in reality, the film delivers astounding entertainment filled with high octane action. I loved the performances, I loved the villain, and for once, oddly, I am somewhat excited for the sequel.

8. “You’re Next”

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Even though I didn’t get to write up this film properly, I think it deserves its spot up there with the best. Rarely do I get to have as much fun watching horror films, as I had with ”You’re next”. It’s brutal, witty, comically self-aware (unlike “Cabin in the Woods”, which is allegedly comical, but I failed to see that) and playfully twists the genre on its head.

7. “The Conjuring”

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Widely touted as the scariest film of the year, James Wan’s “The Conjuring” truly lived up to the hype. I am a sucker for a good scare, which this film has sported a good deal of. The combination of a clever use of old-school practical effects, relatable characters, and the ‘based on a true story’ slant truly resulted in a memorable and terrifying experience.

6. “The Kings of Summer”

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I find it sad I didn’t get to see this film over the summer, because its impact would have been all the more powerful. “The Kings of Summer” is a brilliant coming-of-age comedy filled with witty humour, snappy dialogue, and beautiful cinematography, that makes you wish you were  fifteen again so that you could run away from home and build a house in the woods.

5. “Pacific Rim”

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As someone cleverly summed it up, “Pacific Rim” is the best early 90’s film made today. God, I wish I had come up with that myself. Guillermo Del Toro’s return to the big screen sporting monsters and big robots was just phenomenal and I couldn’t have wished for better quality entertainment. Brilliant special effects, awesome models, and outstanding attention to detail, stapled with a metric tonne of action was responsible for my biggest nerdgasm in recent memory.

4. “Behind the Candelabra”

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Steven Soderbergh’s swan song (following “Side Effects”, also released in 2013) about the life of Liberace was a phenomenal treat with unforgettable performances by Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. Watching this gripping story of love, abuse, betrayal and manipulation was not only entertaining, but most importantly engaging from the point of view of the artistry of film-making. Soderbergh, regardless of what he tackles, has a fine grip on the subject that will highlight the smallest nuances and turn a seemingly shallow love story to a whole different level. Sadly – and I hope he changes his mind – “Behind the Candelabra” is probably going to be the final entry in his filmography.

3. “The Place Beyond The Pines”

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Derek Cianfrance’s follow-up to the stunning “Blue Valentine” kept me glued to my chair. It’s the perfect indie drama with visceral performances by Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper that through the maze-like plot gets you to think about causality in life. Gripping, naturalistic, and dark in the subject matter, as well as the tone, “The Place Beyond The Pines” has been a front-runner for the best film of the year and only recently was it dethroned.

2. “Captain Phillips”

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Paul Greengrass’ newest piece was nothing short of great. This gritty film stylized as a documentary was striking in its naturalistic portrayal of the ordeal those few guys must have gone through when taken hostage by Somali pirates. Interestingly, “Captain Phillips” tries to stay impartial and somehow validates the motives of both sides, but the film’s true greatness comes from the meticulous procedural approach to every single thing on the screen. Plus, in my opinion, Tom Hanks has given the performance of a lifetime in “Captain Phillips”, which crescendoed amazingly in the final act. If that doesn’t score him an Oscar, I don’t know what will.

1. “Gravity”

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Alfonso Cuarón’s science-fiction epic adventure “Gravity” has left me speechless. Not only was it a feast for the senses with the amazingly clever special effects, blunt or inexistent sound, and finally a proper use of the third dimension, but it spoke to me on all levels. “Gravity” was a bundle of enjoyment with a stunning performance by Sandra Bullock, whom I never suspected of such capabilities, and a tight and layered storyline that kept me riveted to my seat. Finally, tickling me on an intellectual level with subtle visual cues and strong adherence to the rules of science has propelled “Gravity” to the very top of my most favourite films of the year, possibly of all time. In space no-one can hear you scream… Am I right?

And just like that, I can close the books on 2013. I guess, I could give the honourable mention to “Good Vibrations”, “Only God Forgives”, “Stoker”, “The Way, Way Back” and “Prisoners” that didn’t make the cut, but still are fantastic films in my opinion. At some point, I had to make the tough decisions, but I’d still gladly come back and revisit them as well.

Point of note for those wondering: I somehow failed to see apparently awesome films like “Mud”, “Fruitvale Station”, “Frances Ha”, “The Bling Ring”, “Rush”, “Blue Jasmine”, “The Counsellor”, or “Before Midnight” which might explain their absence in my ranks. I am, however, planning on getting round to watching and reviewing them in the near future.

Also, in my neck of the woods, films like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Out of the Furnace”, “12 Years a Slave”, or “American Hustle” (opened today) are released in January 2014 and I will make it my mission to watch them.

Happy New Year!

See Also:

2013 so far…