Monday, 31 October 2011

The Midrange Men

There are times when certain thoughts concerning the world of cinema pique one's interest, such as the maligned career trajectory of Joel Schumacher, a guy who directed some seriously good movies like Lost Boys, Falling Down, A Time to Kill, along with not so good films like Batman & Robin, The Number 23 and Town Creek.

This month saw the release of Schumacher's latest film Trespass starring Nicholas Cage and Nicole Kidman. The reviews have been awful and box-office was even worse (it made $18,200 from ten theatres), all this despite a powerhouse cast and director. What's more surprising is that Schumacher released the decent gritty teen drama Twelve last year, from which it seemed the 72-year old director was still capable of making thoroughly cracking films about American adolescence.

Schumacher is simply one of countless midrange directors working in Hollywood. Midrange filmmakers are a uniquely Hollywood phenomena in that they are nothing more than jobbing movie directors who go from project to project without an overriding sense of authorship or signature to any of the work they put out. They are, essentially, a safe pair of hands to shepherd a scripted movie to completion.

The film industry is replete with midrange filmmakers. Some of them like Ron Howard even won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind. Others like Richard Donner have made totally satisfying films like The Goonies and The Omen. There's an ever growing number of midrange directors like Shawn Leavy (Real Steel) and Rob Marshall (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) whom represent the new breed of functional - if uninspired - filmmakers making no frill features that appeal to the masses.

Midrange filmmakers are essential to the Hollywood machine because they know how to create corporate-friendly movies that demand little intelligence from the audience, yet, in their own right, these guys are actually very smart people who are more than capable of imbuing their movies with greater intelligence if their taskmasters demand it from them. (Roland Emmerich's prestigious Shakespearean conspiracy drama Anonymous is the antithesis of his past 'event' flicks like 2012, Independence Day and Godzilla.)

Midrange filmmakers know exactly what the studio requires and will make the film according to their bespoke specifications. If the studio tells them to lose a scene or post-convert their finished product into a 3D mess, they won't put up much of a fight and will do exactly what the shareholders require.

What's more, midrange filmmakers aren't as expensive as say an A-list director like David Fincher who asked Twentieth Century Fox for $10 million just to sign on to helm its pricy adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (this despite the project's original midrange director McG agreeing to slash his $8 million quote to a palatably $4 million), nor are midrange directors a risky bet as say someone like Spike Jonze, whose auteur crafting of Where the Wild Things Are resulted in an expensively esoteric kids film that left a big hole in Warner Bros. pockets.

Midrange directors constantly fall in and out of favour with studio executives. For example, Martin Brest was the toast of Hollywood when he made stuff like Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run and Scent of a Woman. His reliable direction meant that Universal allowed him to make the $90 million bloated melodrama Meet Joe Black and assured him they would consent to his 3 hour cut of the film being the definitive version. The movie was a spectacular flop, grossing less than half its budget on release. (The studio later re-cut the film to ribbons but it was still unsuccessful.)

Brest made a comeback in 2003 and directed the $75 million J-Lo and Ben Affleck starrer Gigli. The film killed the careers of everyone involved, with J-Lo and Affleck only now being given a second chance in different guises. Brest, on the other hand, was never to be allowed to make another movie again.

Midrange directors are also good if you're thinking of launching a lucrative film franchise. That's why Warner Bros. hired Chris Columbus to helm the first few Harry Potter flicks. They knew that Columbus' track record with family films was accredited by past successes like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. The studio knew he was the person to lay the efficient, if hardly daring, foundation on which more leftfield directors could come along and experiment with. Even if the choice of appointing a risky director resulted in a less profitable instalments (aka: Prisoner of Azkaban), the studio could always return to the franchise's reliable core and start afresh.

It was because of Columbus' midrange reliability that Fox went to him to launch its Percy Jackson franchise. Last week the studio announced it has greenlit the film's sequel Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Sea of Monsters, though there is no indication if Columbus will return to direct. I suppose now that the groundwork has been capably established by Columbus, a more interesting and less expensive director can immediately come on board and carry on with the franchise.

The key thing to remember as a movie buff is that you cannot trust a midrange director. They are like the husband you figured was reliable and then you catch him going back to his philandering ways. That's why a director like Brad Silberling, who started out making crap like Casper, seemed to have changed his frivolous habits by helming more introspective projects Like City of Angels and Moonlight Mile, only to then start making inane rubbish like Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events and The Land of Lost Things. Even Ron Howard went from the critically acclaimed Frost/ Nixon to the insipid pile of junk called The Dilemma.

There is also the strange case of dynamic new directors who come on to the filmmaking scene with startlingly original voices, only to somehow lose their way in the system and become directors for hire.

Take for instance John Singelton whose debut feature Boyz N the Hood clinched him a best director Oscar nomination and enabled him to go on to make personal movies like Poetic Justice and Higher Learning. Something has definitely gone wrong in his career because his last few movies have been things like 2 Fast 2 Furious and Taylor Lautner's latest abs-bearing vehicle Abduction.

There are even high-minded arthouse filmmakers like David Gordon Green who began his career making poetically cinematic films like George Washington and Undertow, but has now metamorphosed into a midrange blunder. Green made the decision to migrate from Little Rock to Hollywood and, rather bizarrely, his last few films have been inane comedies like Pineapple Express, Your Highness and the upcoming Jonah Hill comedy The Sitter.

Even promising European directors are not immune to midrange banality once they relocate to Hollywood. German-Swiss filmmaker Marc Forster exploded on the directing scene a decade ago with the emotionally raw drama Monster's Ball. After a couple of interesting films, he has made nothing but average filler, including a poorly received Bond film. Forster's next movie will be the very expensive Brad Pitt zombie invasion epic World War Z, which is about a million miles away from where he started.

As you may be able to gather, it's not so much commercial American movies that are interesting; it's the peculiar processes upholding the system that fascinate me. Jobbing directors and the studios that hire them are reading from the same hymn sheet, both more committed to pandering to formula as opposed to shaking things up. Both seek stability and fortune, committed to reproducing the wheel rather than reinventing it.

It's a flawed system that seems to reward stupidity. Hollywood is so desperate for generic ideas that Warner Bros. paid social networker James Erwin good money to option his high-concept pitch Rome, Sweet Rome after he posted a thread on saying: "What if a unit of current U.S. Marines are suddenly transported back to ancient Rome and forced to do battle with the Roman legions?"

Erwin (aka: Prufrock451) is now an overnight millionaire thanks to a stroke befuddling fortitude and creatively bereft studio thinking, but do you expect anything more from Hollywood movies? Should you?

Joel Schumacher may be on a mission to only manufacture soulless Hollywood products (I can imagine he's busy negotiating a deal to come on board Rome, Sweet Rome), but Schumacher is a seasoned professional who can, sporadically, make really impressive films. He'll do whatever keeps him in a job, and in these vocationally volatile days, everyone can relate to that type of thinking.

Friday, 28 October 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- R.E.M.’s ‘We All Go Back To Where We Belong’

If you grew up during the '90s then you'll have been a little bit downbeat over last month's announcement that American alternative group R.E.M. are to disband after 31-years together. In truth, R.E.M. are a band that hip kids of the '80s will say rightfully belonged to them, but it was actually in the '90s that they acquired global success, evolving from artsy indie rockers to full on stadium gods.

The argument back then among young music aficionados was whether R.E.M. was the biggest band in the word, or was it U2? Now neither group can lay claim to that title. They're too old and extraneous for mainstream commercial radio, and both have suffered diminishing album returns in recent years.

R.E.M. knew they were becoming increasingly irrelevant to the music scene, and U2 front-man Bono has confessed concern over his band's ability to survive in the current market.

R.E.M. has arguably done the right thing by calling it a day. The last song to be released is poignantly titled We all go Back to where we Belong and features a navel-gazing video starring Kirsten Dunst who narcissistically stands in front of the camera while trying to look cute and adorable.

After Dunst's past decisions to star in cringe-inducing music videos like Savage Garden's I Knew I Loved You, R.E.M. really should've known better than to have commissioned this one.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- The Curious Case of Cher Lloyd

The Danish philosopher, theologian and religious author Søren Aabye Kierkegaard said: "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

With that in mind, let us try and prognosticate, in reverse order of course, the key life events of former X Factor pop starlet Cher Lloyd.
  • 2020 – Cher Lloyd dies in a south London crackhouse.

  • 2017 – Cher Lloyd is admitted to a mental asylum because of her strange protestations about how Simon Cowell used to drink the virginal blood of female X Factor contestants.

  • 2016 – Cher Lloyd is forced to relocate to a council house in Lambeth, London where tabloid newspapers report she has developed a dependency on glue sniffing and kleptomania.

  • 2015 – Cher Lloyd gives birth to a son on a realty show called Washed-up Celebrity Maternity Ward. The kid is given up for adoption.

  • 2014 – Cher Lloyd enters rehab but is kicked out after her cheque bounces. Efforts to resurrect her singing career fail as the music scene shifts from ersatz R&B to white guys with guitars again.

  • 2013 – In an effort to convince Americans she is the British female equivalent of Eminem, Cher Lloyd moves to the US. No one is persuaded and Lloyd is deported by Immigration Services.

  • 2012 – Cher Lloyd is dropped from Simon Cowell's record label SyCo.

  • 2011 – Simon Cowell, detecting the scent of easy money, signs Cher Lloyd to his label and puts out the insanely catchy hit single Swagger Jagger. Cowell pays Mike Posner big money to feature on Lloyd's follow up track With UR Love.

  • 2010 – Cher Lloyd auditions for the X Factor but reinvents herself as a watered-down urban vocalist. She performs Keri Hilson's version of Turn My Swag On and is put through to the live shows under the tutelage of seasoned pro Cheryl Cole. She makes it to the finals but doesn't win.

  • 2009 - Cher Lloyd auditions for the second time on X Factor and sings a bland balled and is told to fuck off.

  • 2008 – Cher Lloyd auditions for the first time on X Factor and sings a bland balled and is told to fuck off.

  • 1993 – Cher Lloyd is born.

Monday, 17 October 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- Riz MC’s “Get On It”

British Asian kids in music don't mess around.

Unlike their Caucasian counterparts who get record contracts because of familial contacts (I'm looking at you Pixie Lott and Elly Jackson), or in contrast to their black peers who lose recording deals because of criminal acts (I'm thinking about you Patrick Waite of Musical Youth), British Asian singers and artists are told from an early age of how important it is to knuckle down and get an education before they do anything as ludicrous as pursuing a career in music.

Jay Sean (Kamaljit Singh Jhooti to his mum) was studying medicine at Barts London before getting a US #1 single with Down, Saira Hussain was a university postgraduate with a stable job at the BBC before deciding to launch her experimental band Trickbaby, while Natasha Khan was a school teacher prior reinventing herself as the award winning Bat For Lashes.

Riz MC carries on the tradition of highly qualified desi artists who have gone on to forge careers in music. Riz MC (known as Rizwan Ahmed by his local imam) attended Merchant Taylors' School through a scholarship programme and then graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (which is the same qualification all the leading figures in British life, including our less than brilliant current Prime Minister, David Cameron, possess).

Riz MC is a pretty ubiquitous figure in the British media, doing numerous acting roles in high-end television and cinema projects, while also moonlighting as a hip-hop singer in his spare time. After his début five years ago with the funny Post 9/11 Blues, MC Riz seems to have developed a more serious, if fairly uninspiring sound for his new record Get On It.

Sam Pilling directs the moody video that plays more like an outdated Massive Attack clip assembled together with footage retrieved from the cutting room floor.

Still, with an education that dwarfs mine in every single way imaginable, dare be it for me to question MC Riz's creative decision making.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- Bombay Bicycle Club’s “Lights Out, Words Gone”

I love Bombay Bicycle Club's new song Lights Out, Words Gone.

Considering no one in the band is yet 21-years of age, Bombay Bicycle Club has put out three albums since 2009, each LP embodying its own sonic style and tone. That's a pretty big accomplishment to me.

There's a strong chance that Bombay Bicycle Club may turn out to be one of those bands that will be accredited long after they've disbanded as something that was brilliant but largely unrecognised in its time.

Because Lights Out, Words Gone is such a beautifully rendered song―capable of instilling enormous feelings of wellbeing and comfort―it only seems right for it to be accompanied with a splendidly directed music video that compliments its loveliness.

Those who read this blog often will know that Bombay Bicycle Club sucks when it comes to commissioning good music videos. Being obviously chagrined by my past criticisms, the band launched a competition on Genero.TV for budding music video directors to submit their take on the song. 

The winner has now been chosen and, in true Bombay Bicycle style: it sucks. The winning video is perhaps different from your usual MTV fodder but it's still rather boring, especially with its incorporation of Yucatán pensioners slow-dancing in the Mexican sun. (You can check out all the finalist videos by clicking here.)

In truth, pretty much all the submissions are remarkably similar in style, but if you had to choose the best out of an unremarkable crop then I'd have gone for Rob Brandon & Robin Gray's take on the video which is at least more playful and motivating than the winning clip.

Unfortunately, despite all their hard work, Brandon & Gray's effort didn't become the official Lights Out, Words Gone video, thus it lost out on a £2,500 cash prize which probably would have covered their own costs for making it.

You live and learn guys.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

-Music Videos on my Mind- Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”

One has to be weary of the British press when it comes to overhyping new acts, especially American ones that achieve fame here before they do their own country. Kings of Leon are an example of such an occurrence, as is someone like Quentin Tarantino; both embraced to such an extent by dear old Blighty that Americans had no choice but to take notice of something that had been hanging around their backyards for years.

Now Lana Del Rey is the new addition to the list of American artists who are set to make waves thanks to an overenthusiastic reaction by British music listeners. The BBC, NME and Guardian have run a series of features on Del Rey, hailing her as the next big thing in music. The buzz has been so fierce that US tabloids like EW and Pitchfork have been compelled to also report on her.

Within 6 weeks of posting her debut track Video Games on Youtube, Del Rey has gone from being a minor blogging curiosity to getting her song featured in last week's CW primetime series Ringer.

It seems easy to understand why Del Rey found popularity in the UK before the US, primarily because she has more in common with minimalist British singers like Adele and Birdy than what she does with the current crop of flamboyant mainstream American solo pop princesses. Furthermore, Del Rey is a metaphysics graduate from New York, which always adds credence to singer's credentials as far as the British are concerned.

Del Rey has now moved to London because her growing appreciation here means she will probably gain traction in the rest of Europe too. In truth, her sound is so ineffably American that it's hard to see how she cannot break her own country soon.

The video for Video Games is a fairly ad hoc affair that channels little about the song's themes concerning a young woman's feelings of neglect and insecurity in light of her lover's apathy towards her. It's a heavy subject for a doll-like 24-year old who sings in a voice wiser than her years. Perhaps the evocative resonance of Video Games is why Del Rey managed to sell out a recent London gig within 30 minutes of tickets going on sale.

Is this unwarranted hype, or is Del Rey the real deal? Only time will tell, but she at least seems more relevant to this era of uncertainty and uneasiness than say what Katy Perry or Ke$ha are.

In short, Del Rey seems to be singing about real feelings, a tradition her contemporary mainstream American female singing fraternity is struggling to uphold.