Are Indie Films Better Than Studio Films?

I got duped into watching a little indie horror film called Grabbers, last night.  It’s on Netflix and it has a pretty high rating of 3.5 stars.  The premise– townspeople of a seaside village must keep their blood alcohol content up to avoid being eaten by alien sea monsters– seemed worth watching, but the Tremors-like production lacked anything significantly appealing.  I don’t want to turn this into a review, But this production is very interesting to me as a failure on many levels, but still a success, apparently, on Netflix.  It is even has 72%on Rotten Tomatoes!

It’s an indie film, which means nothing to me.  People talk about liking indie films as though they are their own genre and they are not.  I love that independent film has grown and the artistic freedom and access that it affords, but in general, I don’t like indie productions any more than I like Hollywood ones.  There are just as many flaws in both systems.  I think that generally, the point of a Hollywood studio production is to make money.  They can accomplish this by giving wide audiences what they want, or at least by profiting on their anticipation with a huge opening weekend.  One of the biggest complaints about this system is that it rarely delivers anything particularly extraordinary.  One of the biggest drawbacks is that they track ticket sales as a formula for success rather than critical reception.  The difference is that ticket sales show how many people want to see a movie about such and such, and reception shows how close the production came to audience expectations.  So, if a highly anticipated blockbuster has a huge opening weekend, Monday morning, execs start discussing sequels even though it generally takes about six months for public opinion to catch up and settle the score.  Studios leverage the audiences willingness to watch a property they want to see, even if it is not handled appropriately, so the cycle if broken, is only done so by accident, being either exceptionally good or disastrously disappointing.

Independent films generally aim to make movies.  There are some driven storytellers out there who are very skilled and do their best work, free of the shackles of the studio system, but some directors find the resources available through studio backing are indispensable.  In the world of independent film there is a willingness to look the other way for the sake of supporting art, or perhaps damning the Hollywood machine; But there lie several motivations behind independent film production.  We like to pretend it is for the sake of art, but mostly indie film makers only want to make movies.  Content doesn’t even come secondarily.  This system is ironically even more dependent on revenue because the funding is sought after and less available than funding dumped into a promising franchise, or star vehicle from one of the big guys.  It’s also worth noting that independent films that do get funded by successful producers are somehow seen as inferior, or not true indie film despite being some of the best independent work out there.  For the other folks out there, the focus on just making movies is as tragic as the course of just making money, because they are happy just to be working and either don’t know how to achieve excellence, don’t want to, or are simply not qualified to.

No matter where you are making movies, or who you are making movies for, it should always be about telling a good story.  You can blame budget for substandard special effects, but hiring good writers, directors and actors are not contingent on signing a higher pay check.  This is why the idea of independent film is so appealing.  Potentially, much more can be accomplished provided that the artists are serious about creating something substantial and that their choice of medium is conducive to the talents they are afforded (photography and music come to mind as frequently neglected skills in the world of independent film).  This is where just making a movie gets in the way of possibly making a great movie and opting for convenience is just as bad as any politics in the traditional studio system.

Unfortunately, there is a double standard where indie films are concerned.  They are allowed to be awful and credited with being original, or somehow more legitimate than a mainstream production.  This is the only way that I can reconcile the positive ratings given by audiences to a movie like Grabbers on two separate platforms.  The movie bumbles between genres and never realizes the potential of the premise, lacking heavily in the dialogue department and sadly formulaic without any seasoning or spice.  The blandness is dampened further by utterly uninteresting visual style and terribly monotonous music.  In fact, the creature effects were the movie’s only real strong point.

Such a promising concept is transformed into a boring and sloppy attempt at crossing genres without truly nailing any of them.  This is another problem that indie film struggles with.  It’s also why anytime I hear the word “dramedy” I turn and run the other way.  The reason is simple.  Untested unskilled filmmakers ought to start with more focus, learning how to master one genre before attempting to fuse two together.  A sci-fi/horror is plenty to work with for a novice.  A sci-fi/horror/comedy is unthinkable unless you have the craft down and are able to maneuver between both styles with pinpoint precision.  Grabbers is a muddled mess, failing to be either scary or funny, and with no heart beating underneath the bare bones formula it pales in  comparison to the one liners anyone would use to win you over.  The term “dramedy” is the most common example of indie film failing to tap its soul.  To attempt it is useless.  You cannot have a great comedy without good drama at it’s core.  And all the best drama feeds off of the fuel of comic relief.  A dramedy attempts to give both genres equal billing where one, by necessity, must outweigh the other in order to find success.  The result is almost always two poorly executed genres and an unsatisfying movie.

I don’t know why dramedy is so popular among indie fare.  I chalk it up to inexperience and trying to do too much too soon, or maybe the writer feels that life is neither all that funny or all that serious and wants to capture that view.  Either way, it makes for a stunning waste of time.

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2012’s Biggest Let Downs

The 2013 Academy Awards was fun and there was much to celebrate. But 2012 also delivered some great disappointments that should have been mega hits. All of these movies were disappointing, but some had farther to fall. I’ll start with the least disappointing:

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Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Why it should have been great:

The floodgates have opened and comics are taking form on the big screen in exciting ways that were never before possible.  They have gained enormous traction in mainstream appeal and reboots have become commonplace enough that a new take on a familiar favorite can be seen just a few years after the last one.  No comic book franchise needed a fresh vision quite as badly as the underwhelming Ghost Rider.  The sequel, Spirit of Vengeance was Sony’s chance to get it right, especially after they fought so hard to retain the rights to the property.

What went wrong:

The script was rushed to meet Sony’s deadline and the movie didn’t have much going on beneath the special effects.  The lack of inspiration and daring lead to a run of the mill, action flick with a dull climax and a hokey twist of redemption for the tragic hero.

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Total Recall

Why it should have been Great:

Two 80’s classics from the mind of cult sci-fi mastermind Philip K. Dick appeared to have converged when the Schwartzenegger vehicle Total Recall was given a 21st century face lift with a  Blade Runner inspired set design.

What went wrong:

Everything.  The movie was not only flat, but the echos of the vibrant pulse of the 80’s original still spikes over the bland re-creation of every plot point.  Without at least an interesting new twist at the end, there is literally no reason to watch it.

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The Raven

Why it should have been great:

John Cusack stars as Edgar Allan Poe in a Sherlock Holmes style thriller based on Poe’s numerous tales.  Seriously, what part of that sentence doesn’t sound awesome?

What went wrong:

Edgar Allan Poe is a literary giant.  Screenwriter Hannah Shakespeare, despite her name, is not.  Though the visuals were pretty on target the story consisted of finding clues and arriving too late and finding clues… after a while it feels like a loop and it fails to contribute to or adequately explore Poe’s works, so the promising allure of the premise rises again nevermore.

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Prometheus

Why it should have been great:

Alien Prequel.

What went wrong:

Connecting the film to the highly successful franchise and bringing back the director that started it all gave false hope to many who wanted to see a compelling sci-fi horror film; and instead delivered an elaborately designed, but ill-plotted, quasi-philosophical, highly questionable storyline.  It pretends to explore the chasm between faith and science without taking a leap for true discovery, or at least making a convincing argument for either.

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The Dark Knight Rises

Why it should have been great:

The Dark Knight was a phenomenal achievement on top of the already acclaimed Batman Begins, which turned the genre on its head and delivered the Batman fans had been craving.  Audiences demanded a reprise and ceaselessly speculated about the next installment before Nolan even agreed to do another.  So the bar was set pretty high and the anticipation was palpable.

What went wrong:

Since I won’t review a film I haven’t seen in its entirety, this is my one chance to explain why I hate TDKR so much and forever hold my peace.  For starters, the decision to turn the series into a trilogy was near-sighted, and selfish.  I hate that TDKR is referred to as the final chapter of the Dark Knight trilogy, because that implies that the three films have more connective tissue than they do.  TDKR is not a natural conclusion to Batman Begins and there was no need for such an abrupt ending to the series.  I realize that there is a Ra’s Al Ghul connection and the Scarecrow even makes his third appearance, but these elements were contrived to bookend a series that artificially truncates the Dark Knight’s story. The forced conclusion effectively makes future installments by other directors extremely difficult and all but eliminates the possibility of continuing Batman films in the same vein.  It’s also worth noting that M.Night Shyamalan already did what Nolan gets so much credit for when he made Unbreakable, which was in essense the first installment of a trilogy that never happened, because it was too problematic.

The story chosen, taking Gotham under siege and revolting against its wealthy class (Occupy Gotham), lacks the layers and depth that the first two films had and simply piles scene upon scene, tenuously linking these separate characters and ideas together when they could have all been better used under different circumstances.  Rather than reinforce the story by reiterating a solid theme, Nolan pulls from three separate storylines in the Batman universe and files them down in order to force pieces together that don’t belong. The scenes were shallow and lacked the showmanship of the previous films that made it possible; serving as little more than bullet points to an over-reaching plot.  If they dropped the Dent angle and the Bane escape in the beginning, and hit Wayne harder when he was in his prime, not pissing away his inheritance in solitude.  They could have had a solid opening.  I would have liked to see an intro that finds Batman at war with the police possibly discovering “Robin” to be a worthy adversary/potiential apprentice.

Also, if they weren’t going to have Batman for most of the movie, they should have introduced Azrael, his temporary replacement, rather than setting up a Robin. I love Robin and JGL, but why use screen time setting something up when you are concluding your “trilogy”.  When Batman is in the movie, the action is a joke.  I think history will tell that people would rather forget about this film. It basically spits on the success of the franchise and gives its audience the finger. Bottom line is, if Nolan didn’t want to do the movie, he should have left it alone and let someone else take a crack at it.  Still, I had seen enough warning signs to diminish my expectations, so it wasn’t my biggest let down of the year.

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Brave

Why it should have been great:

It’s Pixar, first of all, and it was in development for a really long time.  It was going to be the first folk/fairy tale by the studio, effectively trading places with Walt Disney Animation Studios which made the much more Pixar sounding Wreck-it Ralph.  When it was titled The Bear and the Bow, the early artwork was gorgeous and the original story description read like and Mulan meets The Little Mermaid.

What went wrong:

They changed writers and dropped the title in an attempt to make the Bear element a surprise.  The quality of the animation slipped by Pixar standards, apparently putting everyone on staff on “hair duty” and letting everything else slide.”  The story was slow, way too simple for its running time and it did little to distinguish itself from the previous Disney disappointment Brother Bear.