Zeitgeist is a funny thing. The fact is, as much as we like to roll our eyes at Hollywood’s lack of originality, and as much fun as it is to delve into conspiracy theories and gossip about who stole what from whom, oftentimes remarkably similar ideas bubble to the surface simultaneously but independently of each other, rooted, we have to presume, in some common unconscious impulse. Of course, sometimes it is just stealing, but that’s a tricky one to prove. Whatever the reason, when it happens in Hollywood and the wind is right, you get a stand-off: similar projects being made at a similar time, like this weekend’s “White House Down” (review here) vs March’s “Olympus Has Fallen” (review here) or “The World’s End” vs “This is the End” (you can read more about 2013’s apocalypse movie face-off here) that will inevitably be compared to one another when it comes to the box office performance/critical response crunch.
Who knows how often this phenomenon occurs, but occasionally some exec, feeling bullish about his project’s chances versus the already-announced one happening across town, greenlights the other, say, Dinosaur Holocaust Comedy, and the game is on. Release dates are vied for (with the accepted wisdom being that first is generally best unless it puts you in a wilderness month), star rosters mined, and directors coached in how to communicate just how very, very different, “Dino Death Derby” is from “T-Rex Terror Time” anyway. Hollywood moviemaking is more and more resembling a high-stakes craps game anyway, so adding one more element of risk to your gamble can’t make that much difference, can it? Here are 15 examples of other times that particular dice has been rolled, along with who won, who lost and a little theorizing as to how and why the chips fell where they happened to fall.
“Tombstone” vs “Wyatt Earp“
Shared Theme: The events and personalities leading up to the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral
Released within: 6 months of each other — Dec 1993, June 1994
Different approaches: With the Oscar-garlanded success of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” in 1992, not to mention star Kevin Costner’s own triumphant turn in the genre with 1990’s “Dances With Wolves” Hollywood went through a brief moment of mounting high-profile westerns around this period, resulting in this Earp vs Earp clash in ‘93/’94. But in fact the films are very different, not just in pacing and performance terms, but in terms of scope and ambition too, with “Tombstone” the more narrowly-focused story in the classical format of the genre, and “Wyatt Earp” altogether a more sprawling biopic in which the most famous events of the man’s life take up only a small portion of its mammoth running time. Casting-wise too, the two films set out their stalls clearly, with ‘Earp’ boasting Costner who was on the A-list after the huge commercial hit “The Bodyguard,” and heavyweight (and “Unforgiven” Oscar-winner) Gene Hackman to lend it Serious Drama props, with Lawrence Kasdan in the director’s chair. To which, on paper at least, “Tombstone” duo Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer, under the direction of “Rambo 2” and “Cobra” helmer George P. Cosmatos seemed decidedly B-grade by comparison.
Which was more successful? “Tombstone,” by quite some distance did better at the box office, raking in twice as much as “Wyatt Earp,” and this off a budget far under 50% of Lawrence Kasdan’s movie. It was first out of the gate, of course, but it always felt like more of a crowdpleaser than “Wyatt Earp,” especially as it came in over an hour shorter. And when ‘Earp’ failed to gain the kind of awards traction it may originally have been angling for, there was no late-surge from the prestige crowd to bolster its numbers either. In the end, ‘Earp’ made back only $25m off a $63m budget.
Which was better? More different and therefore harder to compare than you might think at first glance, “Tombstone” still wins out for us by being the more lean and old-school entertaining of the two. ‘Earp’ is a fine film too, however, and if it’s a little bloated and self-serious at times, the wondrous, Oscar-nominated cinematography by Owen Roizman ensures everything looks amazing, and Costner’s performance, contrary perhaps to the offputting ego-vehicle image the film may have had, is a small triumph of empathetic underplaying.
“Mirror Mirror” vs “Snow White and the Huntsman“
Shared Theme: Rival retellings of the Grimm Bros classic fairy tale “Snow White”
Released within: 3 months of each other — March/June 2012
Different approaches: In a nutshell, everyone sparkles in ‘Mirror’ while everyone glowers in ‘Huntsman.’ Ok, perhaps that’s a bit reductive, but the two films look and feel totally different from each other and are tonally from… maybe not different worlds, but certainly different continents. So where in ‘Mirror’ (review here) visual stylist director Tarsem Singh indulges an almost day-glo aesthetic of lavish, daffy and slightly bonkers costuming and set design, ‘Hunstman’ (review here) goes for steely hi-definition greys and blues to complement the grimmer, grimier tone in which magic is not fairies and elves as much as dead ravens and pervasive menace. Rival queens Julia Roberts and Charlize Theron reflect this too, with Roberts seemingly enjoying the arch wink-winkiness of her performance, as a petulant and insecure queen, while Theron claws and schemes her way through ‘Hunstman’ as the embodiment of beautiful, occasionally shrill, cruelty. And our Snows White? Well, K-Stew does her K-Stew thing and is not asked for much more in ‘Huntsman,’ with the surface empowerment narrative writ large and Stewart herself clad in armor and wielding a weapon much of the time, as a kind of Joan of Arc. But when a film dabbles with such notions and then sells out on them, we kind of wish it hadn’t bothered going there in the first place, so Lily Collins takes this particular ribbon for us — not only is her Snow White absolutely not in any way emo, as an actress she arguably does much more with a lot less in terms of making us root for her.
Which was more successful? Both films made back roughly twice their budget, which, to contextualize, does mean a lot more people went to see ‘Huntsman’ as it raked in nearly $400m, and is spawning a sequel.
Which was better? Seeing as we can’t vote “neither,” let’s just say that it really depends on what your particular bag is. “Mirror Mirror” is much more family-friendly-fun-times, to the point that we can entirely understand people finding it gaudy and annoying. Still, “Mirror Mirror” actually shades it for us (not saying it’s terrific or anything) because it kind of wholeheartedly went for a bright, happy, good-humored take on the tale, which actually feels like a bolder choice these days, and it has a certain originality in its design and approach that lifts its fluffiness even higher. ‘Huntsman,’ by comparison is a bit of a slog, beautiful to look at too, but in a more derivative way, in service of a modern-feeling faux-grittiness that it never really earns.
“Rob Roy” vs “Braveheart“
Shared Theme: Historical Scotsmen driven to noisy rebellion against the ruling elite due to injustices and outrages visited on their wives
Released within: 6 weeks of each other — April/May 1995
Different approaches: The thematic and geographical similarities between these stories more than cancel out the fact that the are set in time periods separated by 5 centuries or so — to even the less casual moviegoer, two movies with stars in kilts bellowing over the highlands is probably one too many. And Michael Caton-Jones’ “Rob Roy” does do essentially the same thing as Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” albeit with less blue face paint, in exploding a Scottish legend into the dramatic tale of the struggle of the oppressed masses against the toffs/Enlishmen who keep them down. Liam Neeson and Gibson are on a par in many ways as the frontmen of each, but as we recall there’s a little humor in “Braveheart” that communicates William Wallace’s charm and charisma to us, something we never quite got from Neeson’s Rob Roy. However “Rob Roy” wins in the villain stakes with Tim Roth really quite stealing the show by managing to be menacing in one of those daft 18th century wigs.
Which was more successful? ”Braveheart.” First to screens by a slim margin, the film took about treble its production budget and won 5 Oscars, while “Rob Roy” barely made it into the black and even at the time was critically regarded as the lesser film.
Which was better? “Braveheart.” It’s become fashionable to diss the Gibson movie (the worst film ever to win best picture, Empire? Really?) but it’s still a very fine piece of epic rousing filmmaking, that paints in wide strokes across a broad canvas, yes, but still manages to engage, in a shamefully enjoyable, emotive way. Oh and it provided the valuable service of giving groups of drunken men something to bellow at each other on the way home from the pub (“You’ll never take… our FREEDOM”) in the days before “300” (“This. Is. SPARTA.”)
“Antz” vs. “A Bug’s Life“
Shared theme: It’s very hard to be an individual when you’re a single tiny ant in a colony full of countless drones.
Released within: Two months of each other — October and November, 1998
Different approaches: There are few dueling movies with a background as contentious as “A Bug’s Life” and “Antz.” To explain: Jeffrey Katzenberg was an executive at Disney when “Toy Story” was being developed and eventually the discussion turned to what the Pixar team’s next movie would be (it was then called, simply, “Bugs,” which is also very similar to “Antz”). Katzenberg then left the company to help with DreamWorks SKG, overseeing the animation division. DreamWorks Animation would combat both Disney (with its traditional hand-drawn animation facility, made up of poached ex-Disney employees) and Pixar (as they’d be utilizing work from Pixar competitor Pacific Data Images, or PDI). When Pixar bigwig (and “Bug’s Life” director) John Lasseter found out about “Antz,” he was furious and called for a meeting with Katzenberg. Katzenberg’s terms were simple: move “A Bug’s Life” away from the Thanksgiving release slot, where it would go up against DreamWorks’ hugely expensive traditionally animated feature “Prince of Egypt,” to a slot sometime in the new year, and Katzenberg wouldn’t just remove “Antz” from the schedule (it was to open in October) but he would cancel the movie altogether. Lasseter told him to go fuck himself (in so many words), and Katzenberg rallied the troops at PDI and got the movie done ahead of the November debut of “A Bugs Life.” That said, for a project that was very clearly stolen from a preexisting one, “Antz” doesn’t look or feel all that much like “A Bug’s Life.” It was PDI’s first feature-length movie and the animation is cruder than in “A Bug’s Life” (Pixar’s second film) with a harsher, more satirical script about conformity and political unrest and the first strands of DreamWorks’ obsession with timely pop culture references (here it’s things like “Starship Troopers“). Even the bugs look different — in “Antz” the characters are a more lifelike brown, while in “A Bug’s Life” they’re blue, to avoid what Pixar called “the ick factor.”
Which Was More Successful? “Antz” got to the box office first and made a little over $90 million, which is impressive but no match for the domestic haul of more than $162 million for “A Bug’s Life.” Even if they come second, Pixar beats them all.
Which Was Better? There are some really wonderful things about “Antz” — it’s got a smart script and Woody Allen is wonderful as the neurotic main ant, named Z. But the general lousiness of the animation and the somewhat dour aspects of the screenplay ultimately undermine what should have been a more jovial, buoyant experience. “A Bug’s Life,” on the other hand, is just that: it’s a sunny confection that effortlessly combines Aesop’s Fables and Akira Kurosawa into one grand design. And while “A Bug’s Life” is often regarded as one of the “lesser” Pixar movies, is still charming and hilarious and gorgeous to look at, with the animators pushing the computers to convey nature in a looser, more organic way (compare this to the blocky nature of the PDI animation). It might not be as heartfelt (or as grandly experimental) as some of the other Pixar movies, but it is a solid, warm-hearted follow-up to “Toy Story,” which isn’t exactly an easy thing to do, with or without corporate subterfuge.
“Armageddon” vs “Deep Impact“
Shared Theme: Asteroid impact threatens the planet with extinction
Released within: 2 months of each other — summer 1998
Different Approaches: While the premises are the same for these two films, right down to teams of astronauts being sent up (perchance to self-sacrifice) in desperate attempts to divert the seemingly inevitable, Mimi Leder’s “Deep Impact” plays out in a much more minor key than the gung-ho Aerosmith fueled testostrionics of Michael Bay’s “Armageddon.” In fact you could almost hazard that they diverge in terms of genre, with ‘Impact’ unraveling as more of a disaster movie while “Armageddon” goes for straight-up, one-man-saves-the-world type heroics. Bay’s film is broader by miles of course, while Leder’s, despite having the storyline to support some pretty massive scenes of planetary destruction, is more interested in the human reaction to this potential apocalypse, something it deals with with surprising heart (Maximillian Schell and Tea Leoni’s embrace on the beach as the tsunami hits is memorable and moving). But perhaps the reason that “Armageddon” is so brash and staccato in its rhythm is that there was no time to make it? The rumor goes that, hearing about the well-progressed script for “Deep Impact” at lunch, a Disney exec took notes and rapidly greenlit “Armageddon” as a counter move, which left Bay with only 16 weeks from a standing start to get the film in the can.
Which was more successful? “Armageddon” was the number two movie of 1998 (to “Saving Private Ryan“), making a hefty $553m of a $140m budget. But maybe contrary to the narrative at the time, the more downbeat nature of ‘Impact’ didn’t actually put people off in their droves; the film pulled in a very respectable $349m off a much smaller, $80m budget. It also opened bigger, though that could simply be down to being first in theaters.
Which was better? If the day will ever come that we reassess Bay’s “Armageddon” as anything but a noisy, graceless, frenetic and yet strangely boring headache of a film, today is not that day. “Deep Impact” takes our prize, not because it’s at all a flawless movie — it gets a little slack at times with all the heavy-duty emoting — still it has more actual meat on its bones in any one of its scenes than was contained in the whole bloated 151 minutes of “Armageddon.”
“Zero Dark Thirty” vs. “SEAL Team Six: The Raid On Osama Bin Laden“
Shared theme: The hunt for Osama Bin Laden was, like, super hard, but thankfully there were a bunch of rough and tumble bad-asses who were up for the challenge.
Released within: Two months of each other (“SEAL Team Six” aired in November 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty” was out at the end of December)
Different approaches: “Zero Dark Thirty” takes an almost journalistic approach to the material, covering the ten-year hunt for Osama bin Laden in sometimes painstaking detail, beginning with the terror attacks of 9/11 (heard but not seen, over a chilling black backdrop). It focuses on a single CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) who doggedly led the pursuit. On the other hand, “SEAL Team Six” goes for an almost faux-documentary approach, with a number of characters looking into the camera to address the audience as if they’re being interviewed and sequences meant to appropriate the look of several kinds of non-cinematic cameras (helmet cameras, complete with timestamps, etc). Sometimes this approach works, but other times, like when they utilize news footage of President Obama with his cabinet and they have someone dub in the voice of the cabinet member saying lines of dialogue from the movie, come across hilariously bad. The fact that the Weinstein Company-produced “SEAL Team Six” initially aired on the National Geographic Channel does, at least, explain why the budget and production values appear to be roughly the same as that of most original Shark Week programming.
Which Was More Successful? “SEAL Team Six” was actually incredibly successful for a TV movie, especially a cheapo knock-off like this one — it pulled down 2.7 million viewers, which was enough to make it National Geographic’s highest rated broadcast of 2012 and the network’s sixth-highest rated broadcast ever. But it doesn’t quite compare to the $95.7 million ‘ZDT’ grossed in the United States (another $13 million overseas), universal critical adoration and 5 Academy Award nominations. Sorry, Weinstein Company and National Geographic Channel.
Which was better? Let’s think about this one… Um, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a true masterpiece, a kind of “All the President’s Men” or “Zodiac” but in the desert and with one of the most amazing female leads in recent memory, a woman who has devoted ten years of her life to one man, a man she is desperate to kill. “SEAL Team Six” isn’t necessarily bad, well, it is, but it’s not that bad. It’s just that the real-life conceit that director John Stockwell, who besides being a fairly big-time filmmaker now, was the nerdy kid’s jock friend in John Carpenter‘s “Christine,” strives for is constantly being undermined, largely by his distracting casting decisions. The last thing you want to ask yourself, while getting involved in the planning and execution of a plot to bring down an infamous, genocidal terrorist, is “Hey is that T-Bag from ‘Prison Break?'” And yes, it is T-Bag from “Prison Break.” Thanks for asking. (And here’s our full breakdown on the differences between each movie).
“Capote” vs “Infamous“
Shared Theme: Head-to-head biopics of Truman Capote, especially as pertaining to his research and writing of “In Cold Blood”
Released within: 13 months of each other Sept 2005/Oct 2006
Different approaches: So well, wow. While other films on this list bear a passing resemblance but seem to do their best to differentiate in terms of tone, in this example they are frighteningly similar in terms of storyline, plot beats, and even subtext. Both movies detail Truman Capote’s increasingly fraught and complex relationship with convicted killers Dick Hickok and Perry Smith which fed into his pioneering “nonfiction novel” “In Cold Blood,” and with both ready at the same time it really was a case of playing chicken; “Infamous” blinked first. The relative quality of the films here is surprisingly difficult to judge as both tell the story very well, and both are marked not just by crisp and perfect embodiments of Capote in the central role (Philip Seymour Hoffman would win Best Actor for his, but perhaps Toby Jones’ portrayal is our slight favorite), but also by strong supporting casts, many playing real-life famous people. In fact in supporting terms, Douglas McGrath’s “Infamous” is maybe the starrier, as one of its differences from Bennett Miller’s “Capote” is in how it also gives a little attention to Capote’s New York milieu of fame and glitz, which arguably makes us understand his eventual breakdown and isolation better than the slightly narrower focus of “Capote.”
Which was more successful? If ever there was a case of first past the post taking the ribbon, this is it. “Capote” was a prestige pic hit, with its Oscar approval also bolstering it to a respectable $50m, off a low-budget base. “Infamous,” by contrast, made just over $2.6m the following year.
Which was better? Again, the first Truman Capote/”In Cold Blood” biopic you saw will probably be the best Truman Capote/”In Cold Blood” biopic you saw as the second time around, the story is just so strikingly similar that whichever you’re watching, you get a freaky sense of déjà vu. But while we’d never begrudge Hoffman his Oscar, we do feel a bit sorry for everyone involved with “Infamous” which is by no means an inferior film, especially for those supporting cast members who gave performances against type to good effect, like Sandra Bullock as Harper Lee (though again, Catherine Keener’s Lee in “Capote” is also terrific) and Daniel Craig as Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr in the rival film) — in the latter case especially interesting as “Infamous” makes the homoerotic nature of Capote’s fascination with Smith much more apparent than in “Capote.” Most of all, great British character actor Toby Jones deserved more from his pinpoint accurate portrayal than for it to end up the answer to a movie trivia question.
“Finding Nemo” vs. “Shark Tale“
Shared theme: Two computer-generated movies, made by rival studios, about aquatic life
Released within: 18 months — May 2003 and October 2004
Different approaches: If it looked slightly suspicious that two rival animation studios would have movies about insect life, released less than two months apart from each other (see above), then it seems like outright theft when a movie set underwater becomes the highest grossing animated film of all time and then an oddly similar feature comes out a little over a year later. If ever there was a case of “riding coattails,” this would be it. “Finding Nemo” concerns an overprotective father (Albert Brooks) who ends up losing his son and embarking on a pan-oceanic adventure to recover him. Meanwhile, “Shark’s Tale” is about a plucky little fish (Will Smith) who pretends to be a bad-ass “shark slayer” with the help of a mob-boss’ cowardly son (Jack Black), in a plot that somehow manages to nonsensically fuse “GoodFellas” with “Dragonheart.” While “Finding Nemo” chose to portray its aquatic stars as, um, fish, “Shark’s Tale” tried to make them look like people, frequently adopting the physical characteristics of the actor who is providing the character’s voice, which means that Smith’s character has little fins where his trademark big ears are, and Martin Scorsese, as a puffer fish, has giant eyebrows. Truly hilarious. Or something.
Which was more successful? “Finding Nemo,” with more than $380 million, was the highest grossing animated film of all time (at the time). “Shark Tale,” which followed “Finding Nemo” by more than a year, was not. “Shark Tale” netted $160 million, which is admittedly impressive, but still $200 million less than its predecessor.
Which was better? While “Shark Tale” has its fans, undoubtedly, somewhere, possibly hidden deep within the Afghanistan mountains, “Finding Nemo” is the clear victor. There’s a reason it was such a smash – it’s that fucking good. From Ellen DeGeneres‘ peerless performance as the forgetful fish Dory to Brooks’ equally nuanced job as the fretting father, to Willem Dafoe as the polar opposite — a father figure who pushes his faux son a little too far — the cast is uniformly excellent. “Shark Tale,” on the other hand, has a starry cast (including Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro and Renee Zellweger) but not nearly as much compassion or depth. It’s the first DreamWorks movie in which the zippy pop culture references overtook the rest of the movie and simply became the movie. There was nothing deeper going on beyond how the next “Jaws” gag could be wedged into the story, which is typically not how great filmmaking works (and a team of three directors helmed this thing). Unlike “Finding Nemo,” which tugs on your heartstrings from the opening prologue and doesn’t let up until the credits roll, there isn’t a single moment of emotional resonance in “Shark Tale,” unless you count the relief that washes over you once it’s over.
“Paradise Lost 3” vs “West of Memphis“
Shared Theme: Documentaries detailing the struggle for justice of the wrongly imprisoned West Memphis Three
Released within: 14 months of each other, though ‘West’ premiered at Sundance just 4 months after “Paradise Lost 3” bowed in Toronto.
Different approaches: Strange to be talking about dueling documentaries, but with the case of the West Memphis Three becoming one of the most high-profile instances of wrongful imprisonment in U.S. history perhaps not as surprising as it seems at first glance. And in fact, the films are different — “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (review here) is after all the conclusion to Joe Berlinger’s epic trilogy of HBO docs, the first of which was certainly hugely instrumental in getting people’s attention drawn to the case in the first place. This fact is acknowledged in Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” (review here) which is told maybe more in terms of the campaign to free the men than what happened subsequently (arguably the central figure in ‘West,’ Lorrie Davis who met and eventually married the imprisoned so-called “ringleader” Damian Echolls while he was on Death Row, mentions that she was moved to start writing to him after hearing about the case through the first Berlinger film). ‘West’ is also, however, critical of the second HBO doc, which cast suspicion on Mark Byers as a possible alternate suspect, while Byers emerges as something of an unlikely hero in Berg’s film, in publicly showing his change of heart regarding the Three’s guilty verdict. But the achievement of “Paradise Lost” cannot be underestimated, and as three successive contemporary snapshots of the ins and outs of the trial, subsequent investigation and eventual release of the men (‘Lost 3’ initially started filming under the impression it would end with the men still incarcerated), it has a different quality, and perhaps a different historical value, from ‘West of Memphis.’ Mainly though, with the events ‘Lost 3’ details, like the new DNA and witness evidence that points fairly damningly to a different perpetrator, coming about largely from the continued fundraising efforts of the campaign detailed in ‘West’ perhaps really the four films together make a compelling portrait of how, in telling a story, a documentary can become an integral part of the story too.
Which was more successful? It’s hard to gauge in traditional terms, with both films playing festivals and then released only in limited theaters, but ‘Paradise Lost 3’ did snag a Documentary Oscar nomination, at least partly, we have to believe, in recognition of the vital role the trilogy and its filmmakers played in righting a dreadful wrong.
Which was better? Both documentaries are expertly told narratives of a grotesque and at times enraging miscarriage of justice, and Berlinger’s sprawling film certainly has earned the right to be considered definitive. But for newcomers to the story, “West of Memphis” maybe provides the more coherent overview from the murders to the initial trial and then through the long, revelation-strewn path to eventual freedom for the convicted three, and is also notable for the appearances by the campaign’s famous champions like Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Johnny Depp, Henry Rollins and the film’s producer, Peter Jackson. But whichever you watch, prepare for the incendiary story to leave your blood boiling.
“Dante’s Peak” vs. “Volcano“
Shared theme: Volcanoes go boom
Released within: About three months — “Dante’s Peak” bowed on February 7th, 1997 and “Volcano” on April 25th, 1997
Different approaches: “Dante’s Peak” and “Volcano” took approaches as different as day and ash cloud blocking out the sun so it appeared to be night. “Dante’s Peak” followed the small town disaster model, with the movie taking place in a tiny town in Washington state, while “Volcano” goes big, adopting the more classic disaster movie mode about a large city falllng to ruin, in this case, modern day Los Angeles. Even the nature of the threat is very different — in “Dante’s Peak” people are wildly concerned by the threat of falling ash, which is beautifully rendered by hundreds of visual effects technicians as a roiling smoke cloud of death, while in “Volcano” everyone has to watch out for (in the words of Dr. Evil) “liquid hot magma,” that runs through the streets and slides through the city’s limited subway system like a really hot version of “The Blob.” Both starred grumpy white men, with “Dante’s Peak” anchored by Pierce Brosnan (as a scientist whose partner in science — and life — is killed by falling volcano debris in the opening prologue) and Tommy Lee Jones heading up “Volcano.”
Which was more successful? “Dante’s Peak” ended up making more money, earning $67 million domestically (against a budget that exceeded $100), while “Volcano” made just $40 million on a $90 million budget. Neither film was what you would describe as traditionally successful, and especially after their heated (pun very much intended) rivalry, you’d think the box office haul would have been a little greater.
Which was better? Hands down, “Volcano” is the superior movie. It’s slyly subversive, acting as a knowing, funny critique of Los Angeles culture, while also delivering the goods in terms of big, dumb action movie fun (it was co-written by “Shattered Glass” director Billy Ray). And quite frankly its set pieces are better, including the one where John Carroll Lynch saves someone from a trapped subway car by literally melting into the lava. Intense shit. And while “Dante’s Peak” certainly has its moments, including a boiling lake of acid, it’s much more traditional and dull and that giant ash cloud is kind of lame.
“Dangerous Liaisons” vs “Valmont“
Shared Theme: Adaptations of 18th Century French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos. Though technically, ‘Liaisons’ is based on the Christopher Hampton play which is itself based on the novel.
Released within: One year of each other — December 1988/November 1989
Different approaches: In many of the instances we’re discussing, the two films manage to be substantially different from one another, or at least appeared to do so in the popular imagination, as to make direct comparison difficult. But in the case of Stephen Frears’ Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons” vs Milos Forman’s “Valmont” the latter film really feels in every way like a paler imitation of the former, no matter how unfair that assessment might be to the relative timeframes of development and shooting. It feels almost like an echo in which the powerhouse performances of the first are replaced by slightly more colorless versions — and this despite the substantially larger budget of “Valmont.” So instead of John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman, we get the one-rung lower (at the time) Colin Firth, Annette Bening, Meg Tilly and Fairuza Balk in the corresponding roles. But the real differentiator is in the script, with Hampton adapting his own play to great effect for the Frears film, preserving the claustrophobic drawing-room dynamics, while in “Valmont” the larger canvas actually feels like it works a little against the film, denying us the real sense of the pressure-cooker atmosphere of deceit and manipulation that ‘Liaisons’ evoked so masterfully, and leaving us with a more superficial, lighter comedy with fewer intriguing, dark undertows.
Which was more successful? “Dangerous Liaisons.” Nominated for 7 Oscars and winner of 3 (‘Valmont’ did manage a costume design nomination the following year), the film was also a modest financial success, making $34m off its titchy $14m budget. “Valmont” has an estimated $33m budget but according to Box Office Mojo, only made a paltry $1.13m.
Which was better? Yup, “Dangerous Liaisons” is better for our money, despite the contrarian impulse to champion the lesser-known film as a neglected gem. Still “Valmont” is pretty good, even if it does feel much more disposable by comparison. Truth be told, had ‘Liaisons’ not existed we might consider it the definitive telling of this story, but that’s the rub, right there. Comparisons with other versions of the same story are inevitable, especially when the release dates are close, and “Valmont” just doesn’t measure up to its bolder, richer predecessor.
“Super” vs. “Kick-Ass“
Shared theme: You can become a superhero… in real life!
Released within: About a year of each other, with “Kick-Ass” debuting on March 25th, 2010 and “Super” coming out April 1st, 2011 (it premiered at TIFF in September 2010).
Different approaches: Well, for one, “Kick-Ass” is actually based on a comic book (by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.), instead of the collected fantasies of its filmmakers, and has protagonists who are mostly high-school kids. (In “Super” all the characters are, for lack of a better word, adults.) “Kick-Ass” also seems keenly interested in deconstructing the tropes of the modern day comic-book movie, which at that point was reaching critical mass, with an emphasis on jazzy pop-art framing and transitions and a comic book color palette. However things that comic book movies usually shy away from, including the implications of actual violence and sexual overtones, are lovingly embraced by both. It’s just that while “Kick-Ass” seems like a knowing send-up, James Gunn‘s “Super” feels like something altogether different — and entirely more perverse. Millar acknowledged that Gunn was in production on “Super” at the same time as “Kick-Ass,” defending it from allegations of plagiarism and even screening the film at a comic book-themed film festival in London. Gunn responded around the time of the film’s release by saying, “It sucks on the one hand and then on the other hand, who gives a shit? There are 4,000 bank heist movies.”
Which was more successful? “Kick-Ass,” exponentially so, with a domestic gross of around $50 million and an international haul of around the same (now you know why they made a sequel). “Super,” on the other hand, grossed little more than $300,000. Ouch.
Which was better? Unquestionably, “Kick-Ass.” “Super” is like a hundred pounds of shit in a ten pound bag: director Gunn throws everything he can into this movie and prays that some of it will work (including but not limited to: angelic visions, a Christian superhero, Japanese anime porno tentacles, extreme violence, animated interludes and Kevin Bacon). But nothing ever really sticks. “Kick-Ass” has its problems (the point-of-view gets lost almost completely after Nic Cage and Chloe Moretz‘s characters are introduced), but it also has some genuinely dazzling set pieces and is much funnier and more charming. Both films are occasionally undermined by their tiny budgets, with “Kick-Ass” being the least New York City-looking movie ever shot in Toronto (totally undermining its “hey, this is the real world!” conceit) but the even uglier “Super” looks often like it was made for less than what it cost to buy your lunch.
“The Illusionist” vs.”The Prestige”
Shared theme: Victorian-era magicians are up to deadly tricks, often while wearing extravagant hats
Released within: One month of each other — September & October 2006
Different approaches: “The Illusionist” takes place largely in Vienna, and follows a lowly magician (Edward Norton) who falls in love with a noble woman (Jessica Biel)… with deadly consequences. It weaves in historical details and appropriates a certain “old timey” look, courtesy of can’t-help-himself director Neil Burger, complete with a persistently washed out sepia tone, a baroque score by Philip Glass, and a whole bunch of irises. Christopher Nolan‘s “The Prestige,” on the other hand, takes place largely in Victorian England (with a section taking place in America) and also utilizes historical details and characters, with defamed inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie!) providing a pivotal role. And while both films are deeply human tales that just happened to be framed by the abracadabra world of magic, “The Illusionist” focuses on a love affair while “The Prestige” is primarily concerned with the rivalry between two dueling magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman). “The Illusionist” is also primarily concerned with magic that could be performed on the stage, while “The Prestige” eventually veers into more supernatural territory.
Which was more successful? Domestically, “The Prestige” only conjured $53 million, a shockingly low number, considering what Nolan was able to wrangle with his three Batman movies (and the even knottier “Inception”). Still, it did better than “The Illusionist,” which made $39 million.
Which was better? While “The Illusionist” is not without its charms, particularly when it comes to Paul Giamatti‘s constantly foiled constable, “The Prestige” is the clear victor – more thematically, technically, and emotionally complex; a magic trick that you haven’t quite figured out until mere moments before the credits roll. (And then you want to watch it all over again.) Nolan was working at the top of his game and “The Prestige” is an utterly fearless, outre work that ranks amongst his very best. It’s layered with fine performances (from Bale, Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine and Rebecca Hall), lots of “magic wisdom,” and deep melancholy. It’s also gorgeous-looking, and really there’s something about its spirit that makes “The Illusionist” feel like a very safe pop record, while “The Prestige” is totally punk.
“The Girl” vs. “Hitchcock“
Shared theme: Academy Award-winning director Alfred Hitchcock was kind of a creep
Released within: A month of each other (“The Girl” aired on HBO in October, “Hitchcock” debuted the following month)
Different approaches: “The Girl” is glum, glum, glum. It portrays Hitchcock’s relationship with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) on the set of “The Birds” as a form of emotional terrorism, with Hitchcock cruelly directing her and (later) insisting she perform sexual favors on him. The director’s playfulness, both personally and professionally, is nowhere to be found. Instead, he’s characterized as a singularly morbid, sexually depraved goblin (Toby Jones does this kind of thing very well). The movie, too, shares nothing with the famous director it’s based on. Julian Jarrold, who directed part of the amazing “Red Riding” trilogy, brings zero zippiness to the piece and instead it just hangs there, oppressive and grey, like some huge storm cloud. “Hitchcock,” on the other hand, is effervescent to a fault. It concerns the director (here played by Anthony Hopkins, relishing every moment in his make-up and fat suit) and his attempts to get his low-budget horror classic “Psycho” made. He suspects his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren) is having an affair with a cheeky novelist (Danny Huston), and he is aided in his scheming by Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the notorious serial killer that “Psycho” was based upon. It’s in this dreamy landscape that director Sascha Gervasi luxuriates in all things Hitchcock, appropriating many of the director’s signature shots and stylistic proclivities in a telling a tale that ultimately isn’t about anything more than the inner workings of a very difficult marriage.
Which was more successful? While well-reviewed by most critics, “The Girl” didn’t break any numbers for HBO (the recent Steven Soderbergh-directed “Behind the Candelabra” did). “Hitchcock” did pretty pitifully too: it made just over $6 million in its limited run this past fall, and failed to secure any major Academy Award nominations (the fact that Mirren was overlooked is criminal).
Which was better? It depends on what you were looking for, we suppose. If you wanted to see one of the greatest directors of all time vilified based on little more than hearsay from an actress whose career never reached the peaks again after working with Hitchcock (she would star in one more movie for him, then virtually disappear), then “The Girl” is for you. Personally, we found it too dour and lacking in anything truly insightful about the man. Sure, he could have been an A-class creep but there was also a jovial, incandescent side to him that rendered him a magnetic personality on and off the set. “Hitchcock,” for all its flaws (and there are many), at least tries to get at that part of the man’s essence, that “The Girl” ignored, And it is directed beautifully on the cheap, with a rousing score by Hitchcock super-fan Danny Elfman, who also provided the rejiggered score for Gus van Sant‘s “Psycho” remake.
“Robin Hood” vs “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves“
Shared Theme: Duh, the Robin Hood legend of not-so-Merrie Olde England
Released within: One month of each other — May/June 1991
Different approaches: Long before Russell Crowe’s take (which we just this second remembered exists, having forgotten about it literally the moment we stepped out of the theater) two Robins Hood battled it out for your 1991 dollar — Kevin Reynolds’ starry, overlong, self-serious ‘Prince of Thieves,’ starring Kevin Costner and the not-so starry, not-so-overlong but similarly self-serious “Robin Hood” starring Patrick Bergin. Why it apparently occurred to two separate production houses simultaneously that what the world needed was a gritty, mucky reimagining of the beloved Robin Hood story (Errol Flynn’s cheery technicolor version is still miles better than either of these two, or the Ridley Scott one), is anyone’s guess, but what they hell, both threw their feather-bedecked caps in the ring. The lower budgeted ‘Hood’ directed by John Irvin (who also directed the original Brit TV version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” sidenote fans) made some claims to greater historical accuracy, notably changing the villain from The Sheriff of Nottingham to some duke or lord played by Jurgen Prochnow, and didn’t do much in the way of reclaiming Uma Thurman’s Maid Marian from being anything more than a milky-skinned damsel in need of rescue. ‘Thieves,’ by contrast, packs its supporting cast with ringers, from Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio’s spunky Maid Marian, to Morgan Freeman’s Azeem, Christian Slater’s Will Scarlett and, best of all, Alan Rickman’s snarly anti-Christmas Sheriff. Both films, however suffer from rather lumpen leads, with ‘Hood’‘s Patrick Bergin all frowny mustachioed seriousness, and Costner’s version a bit nimbler, but not a whole lot more appealing.
Which was more successful? “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” by a country mile. raking in just shy of $400m worldwide despite being technically the second to screens, it was proof positive of the star power of Kevin Costner at the time that everyone flocked to a film that was so stodgily told. The Bergin ‘Hood,’ by contrast, all but disappeared to the point that it’s not even a popular enough search result for “Robin Hood” on IMDB to get into the top ten title matches.
Which was better? Oh, probably Kevin Reynolds’ ‘Thieves’ for its nice supporting turns and at least quasi-interesting egalitarian agenda (not just with Marian, but Freeman’s positive Moorish character too), but then again, the Irvin/Bergin version didn’t inflict a turgid yodelly dirge from Bryan Adams on the planet for which we wish a pox on the whole production. So yeah, screw ‘em both and watch 1938’s ludicrously entertaining “The Adventures of Robin Hood” instead.
Plenty more where that came from of course, among them “Friends With Benefits” facing off against “No Strings Attached” within a few short months (we were fans of neither the Will Gluck movie nor the Ivan Reitman film); the boffo idea of telling an animated superhero story from the villain’s point of view seemed to occur to the makers of “Megamind” and sequel-spawning “Despicable Me” at the very same time; while the rise of reality TV spawned a clash between “The Truman Show” and “Ed TV,” which ‘Truman’ won, obviously, but the latter’s not bad either; “Big” body swapped its way to big bucks in 1988, leaving “Vice Versa” in the dust; the following year Tom Hanks reoffended by appearing in “Turner and Hooch” seemingly minutes after James Belushi had graced screens in “K-9“; we can only imagine the horror of moviegoers expecting that nice Kevin James in “Paul Blart Mall Cop” and getting “Observe and Report” instead; poor old Tarsem Singh just can’t catch a break in regards to finding a film that someone else isn’t already working on and released the pretty but dumb as rocks “Immortals” the year after the ugly and dumb as fenceposts “Clash of the Titans“; and a certain long-distance runner wasn’t exactly lonely when two rival Steve Prefontaine biopics hit in as many years — “Prefontaine” and “Without Limits.”
And there are quite a few more instances of this phenomenon coming down the pike, though it wouldn’t be fair to pass judgment too far in advance: Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” is due out around this time next year but producer Neal Moritz has apparently got a rival “Sleeping Beauty” project developing too, albeit in a more comedic vein (which all feels very ‘Huntsman’ vs “Mirror Mirror” to us). Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Whitey Bulger project faces competition in the form of “Black Mass” to which Johnny Depp was, then wasn’t and now maybe is again attached; Lady Di does a Hitchcock and gets her very own dueling biopics with the forthcoming “Diana” with Naomi Watts, and a more scurrilous take based on the book “Diana: Closely Guarded Secret” also supposedly gestating, though word’s gone a bit quiet on that after a flurry of initial casting rumors (Carey Mulligan, Charlize Theron, Ewan MacGregor all mooted at one point or another — not all, presumably, for the title role); the storied and troubled production of Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” got an unexpected rival when previous star Johnny Depp abandoned ship to mount his own “Don Quixote” but Gilliam’s has been postponed again, in a devastatingly surprising surprise, and we haven’t heard much since then of Depp’s either, so who knows?
Additionally, we’ll soon be seeing a second Linda Lovelace project after Amanda Seyfried‘s turn in “Lovelace” (our review here) when Malin Akerman deep throats “Inferno: The Linda Lovelace Story,” and the many Jeff Buckley projects that were at one time mooted will boil down to two, the already released “Greetings from Tim Buckley” and the developing, officially sanctioned “Mystery White Boy.” The Hollywood stand-off phenomenon is not going away any time soon. — Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor
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