Mar 14, 2012

Phenomenon (Doo Do Da Doo Doo)

By Thomas Willett

As my typical year-end lists will show, I’m not into the average blockbuster. I find them contrived and lacking an emotional core. They have been around since Jaws, and to say that I don’t like any of them is a lie. My copy of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin just arrived in the mail and I intend on watching it a lot. However, what I want to talk about is not necessarily the blockbusters, but the rarer feat: the phenomenon. In movies, it is unusual that budget means a good movie. No one is arguing that Battleship will be quickly forgotten. What about the movies with the money AND the clout? These are movies like Avatar, The Dark Knight, and the Harry Potter series. Even if you haven’t seen it, the iconography is familiar. They shaped our world in general. Most of all, they still hold some level of relevance. With The Hunger Games opening on March 23, will we see the birth of a new phenomenon, or just the second bland blockbuster of the month?

For years now, I desired to live through a phenomenon. I look back at the 80’s and wonder what it was like to live through Back to the Future. I think the same for the 70’s with Star Wars, and the 60’s with Stanley Kubrick. I can ask my parents all about it, but most of the fondness they have was from being there. It was new and impressive to the point that it became a staple. No amount of insight will make me have that feeling of standing in line on opening day. All I have is the present, and I aim to experience the phenomena first hand so that in 20 years, I at least can recount to new movie enthusiasts what it was like to live in a time before The Hangover became the new Animal House.

That is why in working on this week’s entry, I decided to look back at the phenomena in my life. I will start by saying that while I am not claiming that all of it was great, there were some great theater experiences. It was that time when you had a buddy to announce the discovery of something new before it became passé.

While it’s already an international best seller and features a Swedish version, I assumed David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would be a phenomenon. It did well, but that’s it. I felt that it could have been a phenomenon solely based on the marketing, which included an addictive Tumblr page called Mouth Taped Shut and cryptic messages that lead to prizes. They sold it brilliantly (in a fashion similar to The Hunger Games), but as time went on, I began to realize that despite a $100+ million budget and an R rating, this wouldn’t be a phenomenon, just a great Fincher movie that’s reputation is sadly reduced to jokes about the rape scene and the use of Enya’s “Orinoco Flow.”

I am very sure this was a setback in my hopes of being able to predict the next big things. Along with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and Kick-Ass the year before, I find that I get hyped up over the movies with a false sense of phenomena. These three movies all have a specific demographic, and they succeeded in reaching them. However, that opening weekend before the box office receipts rolls in is very exciting because I think I’m taking part. Come Monday morning, reality sets in and I find out that not everyone is into that dark twisted stuff that I like.

I often don’t feel the average success story until weeks later when it’s made clear. One prime example is when I saw the first Twilight on opening day. It may be perceived as very demeaning nowadays, but on that occasion, it was just another movie from director Catherine Hardwicke. I hadn’t paid attention to the ads, and was there because I got in for free. It was a standard movie with a baffling love story, but that wasn’t what made it one of the most memorable outings to date. It was the crowd, who swooned like a studio audience when Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner made their entrances. I never heard that level of affection in a theater before or since. Most of all, my friend’s insistence that everyone in that movie was attractive just made me feel ugly.

That was day one. It’s grown into a ridiculously bloated franchise and for the most part, I don’t see how it’s any different than any past female phenomena. At most it’s responsible for launching a trend of the hot vampire shows like The Vampire Diaries and True Blood and simultaneously creating defamation leagues against the bloodsuckers. I wish that it made people respect Kristen Stewart’s other work (The Runaways, Adventureland), but that’s just me being delusional. She will always be perceived as the lip biter from Twilight no matter how great her performance is in the upcoming movie On the Road.

Then there is The Dark Knight. This movie had a blessing of promotion behind it that I think really boosted it above the average blockbuster. One of the sad notes is the death of Heath Ledger, which I didn’t mourn until after I saw him as the Joker and wanted more. However, it holds the record for most times I have gone to see a movie (five, twice on opening weekend), and the quickest that movie lexicon entered my everyday life. Even my dad was doing his best Ledger impersonation by Sunday. I am not a fan of the average superhero film, but somehow Christopher Nolan has figured out the secret to make me keep going back.

It was a great time in my life, if just because it was fun to calculate how long The Dark Knight could remain on top. While it has some records tarnished by Avatar, I don’t think that it’s gone yet. With The Dark Knight Rises popping up this summer, it’s only a reminder of how ingrained in our minds that film has been. I consider it to be one of the most reflective films of this generation not necessarily just by the movie, but everything surrounding it. It was great enough to surpass the superhero film shtick and become a notable work of cinema from both a critical and financial standpoint. If there ever was a feat, THAT would be the definition of a phenomenon.

I doubt that The Hunger Games will really live up to the level of The Dark Knight. However, I have found it weird how much I would endorse the book. Suzanne Collins’ world is well structured and works well enough as a violent young adult version of The Truman Show. It has a set of rules that it follows without seeming diluted. It may not be the most invigorating book, but I think that Collins’ world building is superb for her level of writing, even to the point where I plan to visit the other books one day. Of course, the central figure is why this story captures my interest, Katniss Everdeen. She is strong-willed and morally grounded, creating a great counterbalance to Twilight’s weak female. I think that this series should be popular, if just because women need a stronger movie role model than Bella Swan, though not as off putting and violent as Hit Girl or Lisbeth Salander.

Like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this movie has had a pretty snazzy marketing process by taking over Facebook. After signing up, the users would be assigned to a district 1-12; the order of which determines class and occupation. From there, they would elect leaders and have frequent updates. I still receive occasional e-mails. While I don’t think that I embraced it as much as Mouth Taped Shut, I do wear a badge of honor as being Thom the milker from District 10. It creates a community vibe, and with a proposed game coming soon, I am eager to see how the marketing will improve. I am holding out on purchasing a Mockingjay pin (though I fully back the symbolism) until I determine if the movie will make me look foolish.

Despite my affection, it’s the general public’s intake that has made me leery. This is a big budgeted movie that the studio is banking on. My biggest concern is from the trailers. There is nothing that screams opposition, but the universe in general is different than I imagined. I didn’t imagine Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) being so glamorous. Its subtle features make me worry that I am not in the demographic for this movie.

This is supposed to be a big hit, so it needs to reach a specific demographic. From the looks of it, I think that the male population will have a harder time grasping it (whether because it looks unappealing or they just cannot accept female leads). While I agree that it isn’t a wise choice, I think that not showing the political undertones of this flick makes me feel like they will be overshadowed by the love story. I’ve broken my rules and watched a few clips to see if anything strengthens my expectations, and it’s mostly just teasing me more. Even the soundtrack, which features Miranda Lambert, Taylor Swift, and the Decemberists makes me worry (though composer James Newton Howard also did a little work on The Dark Knight, so maybe?).

At this point, I can only go in with hopes that it’s the marketing. I am expecting something along the lines of Twilight when I enter the theater: a fairly young, female audience there to see a story about women conquering the world. I don’t expect those interested in its political commentary to immediately show up. As a fan of Winter’s Bone, I have been supportive of Jennifer Lawrence as the lead and hope that this is her breakthrough. She seems strong willed enough. Of course, I don’t know how popular this book is. Maybe the fans will pop up and surprise me. Maybe we’ll discover what Panem looks like together.

I am just hoping that there is substance to The Hunger Games. The reason that I hope that this is a phenomenon is the same reason that The Dark Knight was. While the audience is more limited, I think that there are enough layers possible in the Hunger Games that it will appeal to a younger audience without insulting them. It will have that basic story that is needed to make a great movie and create something fresh. We need entertainment that actually raises questions about society. This one seems subtle enough to do it right. Maybe it will inspire a new wave of brave young protagonists that we so sorely need.

At least I hope there’s a core to this movie that manages to keep it from being tagged “The Next Twilight,” a term that’s insulting on subject matter alone. I’m excited to see if this really is the next phenomenon. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t run into a tracker jacker between now and then.

You can read Thom’s blog every Wednesday and hear him on Nerd’s Eye View every Tuesday and Thursday at nevpodcast.com . Send your thoughts to nevpodcast@gmail.com. You can also read Thom’s movie reviews for Cinema Beach at cinemabeach.com.

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