On the latest episode of The B-Movies Podcast, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I reviewed Tim Burton's new film Dark Shadows, and found ourselves standing contrary to many of the available professional reviews (the film currently enjoys an unenviable 41% on Rotten Tomatoes). Both Bibbs and I were charmed by its intentionally melodramatic storytelling style, and endlessly amused by its rococo sensibility. Seriously, dear readers, Dark Shadows is a fun, campy, and even complex bite of soap opera vitality in a world of blandly structured and oft-forgettable fare. We also predicted, rightly, that Dark Shadows would make a less-than-considerable amount of money, given that a certain, more popular and better-reviewed superhero movie is still raking in all the money that went unspent on John Carter. Also, and perhaps more significantly, that most casual audiences would likely leave the theater disappointed that Dark Shadows was not the broad comedy seen in the film's previews, leading to bad word of mouth. Indeed, that broad comedy (featuring Johnny Depp, decked out in vampire makeup, dazzled and confused by banal 1970s tchotchkes like lava lamps and television sets) is present, but the true tone of the film is not hinted at in the previews.
Which, of course, leads to a very common complaint about the movie advertizing industry: That studios tend to market movies to look the same. It doesn’t matter that a film is striking and original and clever, as the advertisements will compress whatever unusual quirkiness or personality the film may possess into something that looks familiar and openly imitates a recent success; there’s a reason the billboards for The Five-Year Engagement look nearly identical to the billboards for Bridesmaids.
So yes, it would behoove all of us to look at all film advertisements (including ancillary interviews, TV spots, billboards, and even theatrical featurettes) with a degree of healthy skepticism. You may find that the ads occasionally do the film justice, and indeed, when it comes to mainstream action films, the ads usually capture the simple tone of the finished product. But when it comes to idiosyncratic films (or the ones that come from idiosyncratic filmmakers like, say, Werner Herzog, Terry Gilliam, Todd Solondz, Wes Anderson, or even Tim Burton), the studios, fearful of alienating audiences, will make a preview that tries to make an unusual film have that same simple tone. This kind of insidious practice is pretty much common knowledge these days.
But rather than just eyeballing previews with suspicion, it’s more fun to contemplate a world where the opposite were true. We see previews and they all look the same, right? Well, what if what Hollywood wanted to sell was less “mainstream romantic comedy and/or rip-roaring action flick”, and was more “quirk?” Imagine if, for instance, The Avengers was angled less as the action film of the summer, and more like a painful and morally ambiguous tale of foolish world conquest that played like a Lars Von Trier film? It could be seen from Loki’s perspective, and could angle him as a sympathetic madman. That’s a preview I’d want to see. And I’d probably love seeing that film.
Let’s take some recent mainstream releases, and use our inner marketing acumen to repurpose the bland into something more exciting, shall we? An arch exercise? Yes. Fun? Most certainly. Let’s take a look.
Think Like a Man
Based on a relationship-help book by Steve Harvey, the current host of Family Feud, Think Like a Man is one of the boldest experiments in post-modern self-awareness since Being John Malkovich. The film follows several heteronormative couples, all in various stages of their dating lives, who take advice on the opposite sex directly from Harvey’s book. Harvey, however, also appears in the film to sell the book to the characters. He is the inspiration for the film, but he’s also a character in it. Weird. He is the true observer of the romances around him. The women all angle for romantic dominance, and the men, unbeknownst to the women, head them off using Harvey’s own advice against them. Harvey, however, is secretly pulling the strings. These people live in a place that looks like the real world, but it is, in actuality, a halcyon metaphysical romantic experiment, orchestrated by Harvey, the puppet master. He lives in their world, but also controls it, subtly manipulating the characters. He does want them to end up together, and seems to be one of them, but is, in actuality, writing them. The characters eventually have to resort to extreme tactics to escape Harvey’s dating möbius. It’s implied that they may have extreme sex, or “turn gay” to escape. From the studio that brought you Charlie Kaufman’s last movie.
The Lucky One
Nicholas Sparks is, like John Grisham before him, the go-to guy for substance-free-airport-reads-turned-into-cinematic-pabulum. To moviegoers, he is known for oversaturated lighting, tortured romance, and the exact kind of adolescent chest-heaving longing that has long marked the entire industry of romance novels. His heroes are, these days, soldiers and blue-collar types, rather than rough-hewn Victorian farm boys with flowing hair and ripped-pen shirts, but they dramatically serve the same function. The Lucky One follows a solider (Zac Efron) who was saved from a bomb blast when he bent down to pick up another soldier’s photograph. So relieved, he seeks out the woman in the photograph (Taylor Schilling) to thank her. Unstable and blank-eyed, Efron is a man on the edge. A sallow, horrified man suffering from PTSD. When he meets the woman’s equally unstable ex-husband, we can’t be sure if he’s a real exterior romantic threat, or if he’s just an elaborate hallucination. Schilling begins to fall in love with him, but we are constantly on the edge of our seats. Will Zac Efron kill this woman? Is he mad, or is he in love? How much of this is he actually experiencing, and how much of it is imagined? Are those real people, or facets of his psyche? Or maybe he did die in that blast, and this is his last glimmer of life, flashing before his eyes before he blinks out forever. From the studio that brought you The Machinist.
Jeff Who Lives at Home
Jeff (Jason Segel) is a man in his 30s who never moved out of his mother’s garage. His older brother (Ed Helms) has a job, his own home, and a loving wife (Judy Greer) who may or may not be cheating on him. The two brothers, over the course of a haphazardly constructed day driven by flustering jealousy and uncertainty, try to find material proof of her infidelity, leading to meaningful conversations about their respective lives and comparable levels of sloth, perhaps exacerbated by their proximity. A close look, though, reveals that Jeff has been subtly leading his brother to emotional turmoil. A few quickly glimpsed scenes and mysterious phone calls also imply that Jeff is manipulating his brother’s wife into bouts of incriminating behavior. Jeff, you see, hates his brother, and has, through quiet banter, and a veneer of lazy ease, been setting up an explosive murderous confrontation. He is a slacker Iago waiting to employ his years-in-the-making revenge against his family. From the studio that brought to Frownland and The Shape of Things.
Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
Adapted from Dr. Suess’ beloved pro-environment screed, The Lorax gets the post-apocalypse treatment in this dark, slow-moving and hopeless endeavor from the studio that brought you The Road. We see, in the previews, a world decimated by pollution, war, and violence. Only one mutated person lives amongst the wastes. We see flashbacks to a brighter time of teddy bears and dancing fish, but it is doomed. The world came to an end when a small Satanic creature, The Lorax (voiced, in the preview, by Peter Stormare), appeared and allowed the world to deteriorate around him. He does nothing active to cause the destruction, but progressing shots of the orange imp against increasingly destitute backgrounds imply that he may be merely willing the world to end. The film is patient, calculating, and offers no salvation for the world. A dense symbolist essay on the nature of entropy, The Lorax is a bleak statement that implies we are but ignorant, marshmallow-eating teddy bears in a world that is ripe for decay. Rated R.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Not really a documentary, but a quirky piece of magical realism disguised as a found footage film, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is about a kindly space alien who runs a sushi restaurant in a Japanese subway station. In voiceover, we learn he can communicate with fish. He is so good at making sushi, he can make women have orgasms (we see the same single shot of a happy female patron eight separate times in the preview. We see plate after plate of sushi filling up. The title refers to his powers to create sushi out of thin air based on the dream he had the previous night (á la The Lathe of Heaven). All of this is communicated with a voiceover (by Dakota Fanning), and with dubbed dialogue from Jiro’s two sons. One of his sons wants to be a chef, but finds he has inherited his father’s power to communicate with fish, and doesn’t want to kill them. The other son tends to ignore his family. From the studio that brought you Repo! The Genetic Opera.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
It’s called “lying,” and I have legitimately lost track of how many times we've discussed it on CraveOnline or The B-Movies Podcast. Thanks in large part to online entertainment journalism, or at least reporting, audiences are now aware of motion pictures from the moment they are conceived, but this was not always the case. There was a time, not even that long ago, when a major motion picture could be completely unknown to audiences until just prior to its release. A time when you could go to a movie theater and have no prior knowledge of a title you found on the marquee. But nowadays, thanks to unholy amounts of competition and the pervasive consumption of all manner of media, advertizing is almost literally everywhere and an even bigger aspect of the film industry than ever before. And used to be really freaking important anyway.
As such, we really do need to keep a closer eye on how movies are marketed, something serious film critics seemed to pay a lot less attention to in the yesterdays of yore. It’s important to have some knowledge of what audiences are expecting when they see a motion picture, because nobody sees a movie, or reads a book, or so much as eats a hamburger in a vacuum. We take our personal experiences and foreknowledge with us, and in the medium of film, most audiences get the majority of their foreknowledge from marketing departments, who decide which clips to show, which images to put on giant billboards, and what previously successful motion pictures to equate a new one to. And often, they do so with little regard for anything beyond getting audiences to buy their tickets. Once their actually in the theater, after the trailers roll of course, filmgoers and the movies themselves are on their own. But of course they’re not. Once the lights go down and the never-ending series of production company logos start to roll, the film itself has to compete with the movie audiences had in their head when they sat down. And when that fake movie is better, or at least entirely different than the real one unspooling in the projector, the movie itself is at a disadvantage.
This is a big part of the reason why I insisted on seeing The Avengers twice before I reviewed it. I had literally been awaiting a big screen, big budget, live-action Marvel team-up since I learned how to read. I figured there was no way that Joss Whedon’s film was going to match my mental projections, and I was right. On first viewing, I was pleased but distracted by all the things I simply would have done differently. The second time I saw the film, comfortable now with what it actually was, I was able to judge The Avenger on its own merits, and mercifully found it to be a very excellent film. Audiences are less likely to do that with something as quirky as Dark Shadows, whose advertizing department marketed the film as a sort of newfangled Addams Family rip-off, complete with a sketch comedy, fish-out-of-water mentality. And while it wasn’t a total fabrication, and (as Witney already pointed out) those scenes are actually in the film, they occupied only a tiny fraction of the actual running time. The rest of Dark Shadows was infinitely more droll, and outright ambitious in its attempt to capture the scope of an entire soap opera within two hours. While imperfect, the film Tim Burton actually made is very good, but as critics and audiences seem to have discovered, it’s not what we were told we would watch.
To put it another way: imagine the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever tasted. Seriously, take a moment and imagine it melting in your mouth just the way you like it. Now, imagine that same taste but instead of macaroni and cheese, you’re eating a candy bar. You unwrapped it, it looks like chocolate, but tastes like macaroni and cheese. There’s no way you’re going to say that’s a good candy bar, is there?
So I came up with the idea to take extremely mainstream movies and come up with a way to remarket them as something with a smaller audience in mind, just to show you how weird it is from another perspective. (Witney already went outside that particular box by choosing Jiro Dreams of Sushi, but whatevs.) I think I’d like to visit the alternate reality in which the strange and unusual is the norm, and bland blockbusters have to be disguised by a marketing department’s judicious tampering, if not outright lies. Let’s take a peak on the other side of the fringe, shall we?
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
It’s a Michael Bay film, which would make the marketing executives in this parallel dimension want to jump out the window. Seriously, the entire last act of the film is just robots punching each other. Yawn. Fortunately, hidden in the film’s first half is an oppressive workplace dwelling somewhere between the realms of Terry Gilliam and The Coen Brothers, in which John Malkovich plays the oppressively obsessive-compulsive boss to a frustrated recent college graduate, played (unfortunately) by Shia LaBeouf whose reasonable career goals are stymied by the current financial crisis. Throw Malkovich’s face on the poster with “From the Star of Being John Malkovich” slapped on the front, and play the giant robot stuff as a sort of Brazil-ian fantasy on the part of the protagonist, about being an important cog in the Kafkaesque corporate machine. Big boffo box office!
First the bad news: it’s a car racing heist movie filled with big name stars. Nobody wants to see that, so the trailer will have to play up Fast Five’s extensive second unit photography of beautiful Rio de Janeiro, and emphasize the corrupt law enforcement officials and Che: Part 2 co-star Joaquim de Almeida’s speech about keeping the poor down by making them dependent on handouts from the rich. The douchier moments from the Anglo cast can be portrayed as American naïveté in regards to foreign policy, and the crazy climactic giant safe heist can be interpreted as a metaphor for the damage caused by clumsily trying to redistribute wealth without actually solving the root socio-political issues that created the discrepancy in the first place.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Murder mystery? What murder mystery? David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is all about the political corruption scandal that forces Daniel Craig’s character to leave the city in the first place, and the crazy lengths he’ll go to in order to save his magazine from scandal. You’ll have to play up the icy Swedish landscape with calm, classy music and frequently reference the pervasive misogyny and the ancillary protagonist’s conflicting nature: outwardly projecting individual strength while ultimately needing the male protagonist’s approval and affections in order to validate herself.
Actually, here’s an easy one. We can actually just tell you exactly what the movie is about. Alan Alda gets the working class chumps at his hotel to invest in a ponzi scheme, leading to their financial ruin. They end up jeopardizing their occupations, which they really need now that they’re broke, in order to find their comeuppance. There’s no need to downplay the pandering humor because it’s not funny anyway. Just leave Eddie Murphy out of the trailer altogether and emphasize the suicide attempt of the old doorman and the frustration on the part of law enforcement to successfully prosecute the rich culprit, and maybe hint at the film’s ending, which rewards a small faction of Alda’s victims at the long-term expense of all the rest of people whose lives he ruined.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
The trailer opens with a montage of Michael Caine’s greatest performances, from the heroics of Zulu, to the heartlessness of Get Carter, to the abortion scenes in The Cider House Rules. It’s two minutes of classic performances, culminating in one single shot from the actual film: “Who’s up for an adventure?” asks Caine. Journey 2 The Mysterious Island. The audience cheers, completely unaware that Journey 2: The Mysterious Island might very well be Caine’s worst film since Jaws: The Revenge. It doesn’t matter. By the time they find out, they’ll have already bought their tickets.