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by Eric Kohn
August 27, 2010 12:43 PM
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Eric Rohmer vs. the 3-D Threat: August in Focus

"The Expendables" (L) and "Get Low": two sides of the same coin? ["The Expendables" photo courtesy of Lionsgate; "Get Low" photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics]

No movie made more money in August than "The Expendables," an old school action product so thoroughly decried for its empty, virile spectacles that you have to wonder if the majority of audiences pouring money into Sylvester Stallone's pocket have done so with full awareness of the blatant stupidity they choose to endorse. People aren't always sheep, but they often like their entertainment to treat them that way.

That's a problem faced by adventurous filmmakers and their cohorts in the specialty business on a regular basis, but the final dog days of summer always make it especially clear. August, a junkyard for leftover studio releases as the core demographic of young moviegoers head back to school, rarely offers quality cinema made on any scale.

The mainstream releases that deserve mass audiences usually get relegated to the shadows: While "The Expendables" has been keeping company with "Eat Pray Love" at the top of the box office, Edgar Wright's stylishly funny Michael Cera vehicle "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" sank fast. A similar fate met "Piranha," a hilariously twisted blend of horror and subversive wit from French émigré Alexandre Aja.

Both movies sport an inventive formalism rarely seen in studio films: "Pilgrim" packs together layers of videogame nostalgia and intentionally exaggerated combat to represent an alienated youth's wandering disposition, while "Piranha" blends the campy thrills of the original 1978 Roger Corman joint with contemporary teen satire and some of the best 3-D effects of the year.

The arthouse charts paint a slightly happier image of audience interests. Two of August's high quality movies in limited release, "The Tillman Story" and "Animal Kingdom," have done decent business. "Tillman" is a sharp piece of journalistic outrage over governmental conspiracy, and the superb Australian crime epic "Animal Kingdom" elevates the genre to profound levels of psychological intrigue.

But, the real success story on the specialty turf is "Get Low," a movie that I frankly can't stand. Its appeal owes much to its Hollywood pedigree: it's an old-fashioned, hopelessly sentimental period piece with the universally loved star power of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray. Their presence provides one feeble reason for seeing the movie, but you might be better off waiting for the inevitable Academy-sanctioned clip reel.

On the specialty front, "Get Low" represents the same threat that "The Expendables" does on a wider scale. There's nothing daring or conceptually new about these movies, nor do they channel fresh energy into conventional formulas. I would much rather see a cinematically audacious movie like "Lebanon" (which coincidentally has the same distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, as "Get Low") rise to the top of the crop. It's a war movie, with explosions and theoretically a higher (or at least more credible) body count than "The Expendables," since it takes place during the very real 1982 Lebanon war.

But director Samuel Maoz, a veteran of that war, uses the constrained setting of a tank to create an original sense of claustrophobia throughout the movie. "Lebanon" exists firmly within a familiar genre while upending expectations. It's safe to say there's nothing else like it.

New Yorkers have been provided with a unique look at the tension between old and new with two recent series. Film Forum's "Classic 3D" program, which ended this week, cobbles together an exhaustive lineup of retro offerings, some of which use the technology better than others. With 45 movies, you're bound to get some clunkers. The festival's density emphasizes the breadth of genres to which Hollywood studios applied the technology during its initial popularity in 1953 and 1954. Melodramas, westerns, and musicals all erupted into the third dimension. It makes today's action-driven standards for the format look downright restrained. At the same time, it illustrates the extent that marketing gimmicks can survive much better than certain modes of filmmaking.

At the other end of the spectrum lies Eric Rohmer. The French New Wave sophisticate, who died in January at 89, is the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, through September 3. Rohmer made his best movies about the logic of conversation. Movies like "My Night at Maud's" and "Claire's Knee" remain objects of endless fascination for the way they put verbal communication front and center, an end rather than a means. To watch a Rohmer movie is to engage with its ideas, question its characters' motives, understand the characters and pity their shortcomings. Chatter as high art: Now there's a dimension that no high-tech glasses can possibly provide.

In its basest format -- a stunt rather than a narrative device -- 3-D serves as the root of all evil that plagues the multiplexes. "The Expendables" is not a 3-D movie, but it might as well be. ("Piranha" exploits 3-D with an efficiency that makes sense, but you wouldn't know it from the mediocre ad campaign.) In contrast, the talkiness of "Scott Pilgrim," as much a part of its charm as any of the battle scenes, borrows a page from the Rohmer playbook. So does "Lebanon," where the limitations of the setting make the impact of the human face and the spoken word more potent than any outrageous visual flourish.

Speaking of visual flourishes: The final weekend of August includes the theatrical rerelease of "Avatar." On the eve of the biggest 3-D movie ever made returning to the big screen, it helps to remember that the best special effect can be nothing more than a well-positioned camera.

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7 Comments

  • Duder NME | September 2, 2010 2:02 AMReply

    Tim, well put about Scott Pilgrim, but I don't think that's why audiences avoided it in droves. The same happened with Snakes on a Plane, Watchmen, and KickAss - the TV ads told them not to go, as if inadvertently daring them to experience something so esoteric was beneath them. Internet hype was what fueled those films, which is nice for a certain level of budget, but not the amount that requires topnotch CG to portray 8-bit graphics (still scratching my head about that).

  • jl | August 28, 2010 10:45 AMReply

    Stallone deserves a lot more credit than he gets. Fascinating article in GQ has a great profile about him. Stallone's Rocky and Rambo underdog/hero roles will forever remain some of the lasting characters in film history.

  • Ndog | August 28, 2010 10:13 AMReply

    I agree with Jules, Stallone deserves waaayy more credit from critics. He's able to attract an audience, rather than these snooty art films the critics always love to wave above their readers heads to let them know how sophisticated they are.

  • Tim | August 27, 2010 9:38 AMReply

    Scott Pilgrim is an interesting case and cannot be compared with Rohmer in any serious way. Yes it has a lot of verbal wit and shows the dynamics of its relationships in an interesting way, but this is all overwhelmed by a huge quantity of special effects which call deliberate attention to themselves in their effort to self-consciously make the mise-en-scene resemble a video game. The ultimate problem with the movie is that almost nothing happens in it once the main character's problem is established - or rather one thing happens over and over again. There is no story to engage with in a traditional dramatic fashion and as a result the film ends up seeming vacuous and meaningless despite its enjoyable moments. I think that's really why people didn't go - there's nothing to recommend except to connaisseurs. By contrast Eric Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke uses digital technology in an unusual and interesting way to create an historic mise-en-scene which is in the background of the action in a way which would not have been otherwise achievable on a budget suitable for the likely size of his audience. That film also does have a plot which involves the possible life or death of several of its characters:indeed every Rohmer film has something real at stake amidst all of the talk whereas I never doubted for a moment that Scott Pilgrim would get what he wanted and it wasn't very interesting at that story level which is essential for a populist success. I only wish Rohmer had survived until the error of chaper 3D technology to show us how some other ways of using it.

  • Perhaps Not | August 27, 2010 8:03 AMReply

    @Danjack - Scott Pilgrim wasn't entertaining? I had a terrific time at it, as did my wife and most of the folks I know who saw it. The problem wasn't that most of the people who saw it didn't like it, the problem was that almost nobody saw it (although let's all applaud Universal for their $90 million commitment to an independent film - seriously, guys, you thought the guy who directed "Shawn of the Dead" and the co-star of "Superbad" were going to make you a hundred million dollars? The gross receipts of all his post-"Juno" movies COMBINED doesn't add up to $100 million).

    The only thing "The Expendables" has in common with classical mythology is that both involve a lot of bloodshed.

  • Jules | August 27, 2010 7:57 AMReply

    Agreed. As a failed critic and current filmmaker and actor (and yes my ego very much likes that reverse trend) I think critics and yhe academia snooty attitude towards audiences desire to be entertained sucks. Sly Stallone is a doer and beats odds and flack since he was told to fuck off when trying to make rocky. The academy embraced Kathryn bigelow as an outsider which is a crock of shit. She had no budget cuz when theybgave her one in k19 widowmaker a good script with a great cast in the usually sucessful submarine war picture drama she fucked it up. I had counted departed as one of yhe worst best pictures ever but hurt locker knocks it away. At least scorsesse desered it overall. That hurt is the lowest grossing best picture ever speaks volumes while avatar got snubbed which was an obvious fuck you ESP for the sound editing awards. At my level as a filmmaker which ain't so great yet my crew could blow up bombs as well as they did. Avatar had sound design that is ear boggling even if you think it's dumb. Which I don't at all. Anyway...who cares about critics. Not audiences obviously. Nor filmmakers. Fortunately

  • Danjack | August 27, 2010 2:51 AMReply

    Or it could be that August of this year has proven just how out of touch critics are on a regular basis. The Expendables was a heck of an entertaining film while Scott Pilgrim was not to most people.

    Action films like TE, are more rooted in classical mythology than anything else, and no matter if you critics like it or not, myths will never go away. Neither will sequels to successful films (sorry Scott Pilgrim), so get ready to bash another popular film when The Expendables 2 comes out in a year or two.