The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Bore-antine Streamin’: ‘Radioactive’ / ‘Chemical Hearts’ / ‘Let Him Go’ / ‘Come Away’

This is life now. (Netflix)

“Wait a minute – you come into my house, my party, to tell me about the future? That the future is tape, videotape, and not film? That it’s amateurs and not professionals? I’m a filmmaker, which is why I will never make a movie on tape.”
– Jack Horner (played by Burt Reynolds), Boogie Nights, written by Paul Thomas Anderson

So… it finally happened.

Way back in 1949, Hollywood saw its finely-crafted studio-to-cinema infrastructure threatened by the looming threat of television. Film is an art form, but studios are businesses, and the thought of there being an alternative to the format they monopolize is always something that fills them with dread.

MGM co-founder Samuel Goldwyn wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he proposed three options for how Hollywood could cope with tv:

  1. Film studios should have their own tv stations (not feasible in ’49, as the US government is threatening anti-trust action – remember when the government used to do that?)
  2. Studios deliver first-run films on television (dismissed by studios because they don’t want to fight for then-limited channel space with established tv entities)
  3. Turn cinemas into large-screen “televisions” that delivers televised film “prints” to the big screen (something neither financially nor technologically feasible in 1949)
Going to the movies in 2020. (Nickelodeon)

Eventually, film developed a co-existence with television, just as film later would with home video and the internet. Yet, film studios gave priority to cinemas, as that’s the intended showcase for film. Even as the same studios continue to bilk cinemas with their uneven revenue-sharing (in Goldwyn’s time, it was 50-50; with the rise of the blockbuster in the ‘70s, studios reworked the deal to take nearly 90% of the opening weekend gross, with cinemas’ shares increasing the longer a film plays – that’s why there’s so much emphasis on opening weekend, why film tickets cost so much, and why even film snacks are absurdly expensive), they maintained the roughly six-month window between a film’s cinematic release and its home video release.

Then COVID happened.

Although studios like Warner Brothers have callously decided that public safety isn’t nearly as important as releasing Tenet on the big screen to placate Chris Nolan’s fragile ego, most others (like Disney) decided to either push back their films back to the hopefully-safe 2021 calendar (their Marvel films) or just go ahead and release first-run films via their streaming service (the Mulan remake).

Yup. It took 71 years, but now all three of Goldwyn’s proposals have come to pass: studios do own both proper tv networks and the newfangled streaming services (thanks for the deregulation, Clinton); digital projection has indeed turned proper cinemas into large-scaled HDTVs; and now – with Warner Brothers announcing that all of their first-run 2021 films will premiere on their streaming service – the thought of a first-run film premiering on television is no longer ridiculous.

On the one hand: it makes sense for WB to plan ahead, as we still don’t know what a COVID 2021 will look like; on the other hand: this is a major conglomerate-backed studio flexing its muscle over the cinema-owners who’ve spent the last few decades fighting a losing battle for power with those studios. It’s a bit presumptuous to call this “the end of the traditional cinema”, but it certainly doesn’t help.

Yeah, I know I embedded this in my last entry, too.

Now that we recognize this new normal, what can we expect from it?

More of the same, it seems. My very last piece was a review of a trio of mediocre films – not series – from the already-defunct, mobile-only streamer Quibi. Whereas Goldwyn’s vision for the future of film was ahead of its time, Jeffrey Katzenberg – who, in 1991, did his own state-of-the-industry write-up – had a vision that was merely a poor attempt to hop on new technology without really understanding how that technology is used by the layperson. What both have in common is that neither make the films any better.

As I mentioned in my last piece, the three Quibi films I saw online were so obsessed with their own self-importance that they failed to recognize their own mediocrity. Such is also true for the studio films below, which I watched through official advanced screening portals during a year of COVID lockdown. (I do love being a proper critic.)  These films may be art house and indie fare, but they each still had millions poured into their production and advertising budgets; they were meant to be seen on big screens big the largest possible audiences.

Yet, not a single one lingers in the memory more than five minutes after it’s over.

Radioactive

(Working Title Films)

It wasn’t until this film began that I found out it was directed by Marjane Satrapi. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, stop what you’re doing and watch her film Persepolis immediately. Then read her comics. Then learn about the other films she’s directed. If it isn’t clear yet, I’m a fan and I can see why Lauren Redniss thought Satrapi a fine choice to translate the former’s graphic novel of Madame Curie to film.

It’s a shame then that the film falls into the typical biopic tropes when it has such an interesting subject with which to work. Sequences in which Satrapi – whose most famous work is a monochromatic memoir – allows color to softly dance across the screen are a credit to her and lensman Anthony Dod Mandle. The film is always a delight to watch and none of the performances were grating (though Rosamund Pike seems to be moving at only one gear the entire film).

But if you’ve seen one biopic you’ve seen ‘em all: meet-cute with the eventual spouse; our lead not being taken seriously for their brilliant discovery; lead and spouse begin to drift apart because of the demands of the lead’s work; and so on. To top it off, the film makes the mistake of trying to cram years’ worth of life and achievements into 109-min. package that can’t help but feel incomplete.

Marie Curie was an innovative scientist, Marjane Satrapi is a talented film-maker, and Rosamund Pike is a gifted actress. Yet, those elements never coalesce into an appealing formula here.

GRADE:                                                            C

Chemical Hearts

(Page Fifty-Four Pictures)

This film is exactly what you think it is: a boy’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl crush on his neighbor being treated as a legit drama. Based on a novel, I haven’t read the book and therefore can’t comment on what story beats were and weren’t lost in adaptation. Nevertheless, this film – like last week’s Quibi flick When the Streetlights Go On – checks off every YA lit checklist entry. Unlike Streetlights, this one actually is based on a YA book.

It’s competently shot and decently acted, but if you’ve ever seen, read, or otherwise experienced a YA coming-of-age story before, you can predict each and every scene of this film with little effort.

It’s one thing for a film to remind you of another; it’s more for a film to wish you were watching another.

GRADE:                                                            D

Let Him Go

(Mazur Kaplan Company)

At this point, it’s safe to say that if Diane Lane is in, well, anything then she may be too good for it. That’s never more apparent than when she’s performing beside a can’t-be-bothered-to-give-a-shit Kevin Costner, who’s gone from “pretty cowboy” to gravel-voiced “dad”-type. I haven’t seen a single episode of Yellowstone, but if the tv spots are to be believed, he does there what he does through this entire film: not much’a nothin’.

For a nearly-two-hour film, this flick is sure in a hurry to get from one plot point to the next (that’s despite its “slow burn” pace). And for a thriller, it seems to deflate its own stakes at every possible point: we’re told the Weboys are a super-dangerous clan who rule the town with an iron fist, but there’s only, what, six of them total? Hell, the inevitable shootout finale is over in record time. Even before that, characters cross the line several times and receive no reaction for their behavior.

And Costner… his character is maimed at one point and he reacts to it as if he just noticed his shoe was untied. And that’s after his hard-ass former sheriff character says he won’t go on this quest, only to go in the very next scene. Character consistency is non-existent here.

I enjoy a good neo-Western as much as the next cinephile (even though this film is set in the ‘50s), but this is just run-of-the-mill boilerplate.

GRADE:                                                            D

Come Away

(Endurance Media)

Remember the DS9 episode “Badda-Bing, Badda-Bang”? Long story short: the characters have to go to the holodeck for program set in 1960s Vegas (don’t ask). Sisko is hesitant to do so, because, as he clearly explains, that time and place weren’t exactly welcoming to people with a hue like his (and mine). In fact, it’s a bit condescending the way Cassie dismisses his concerns as outdated.

I thought of that scene whilst watching Come Away, a film that wants to be the Peter Pan/Alice in Wonderland equivalent to George Lucas in Love. It’s set in Victorian England and features the fantastic David Oyelowo as the father, Angelina Jolie as his wife, and their mixed-race kids as Alice and Peter.

{deep breathe} Okay… let’s talk about color-blind casting.

I’m often asked by white people why Shakespearean characters can be played by anyone (unless they’re Othello), but it’s racist to cast someone white as Madame Butterfly. Because Eurocentrism has colonized the entire damn world, making white (cis, hetero, male) the norm. When you do that, you give permission for minorities to take them on as they will because you’ve made your culture dominant through force. But when a colonizing culture tries take on the traits and stories of minorities, it’s appropriation because it’s just another step of in colonization and the assimilation of the minorities.

That’s why Hamilton is okay: people of color have been so removed from the story of America that the only way for us to get recognition is to throw ourselves into stories that don’t even involve us – and it takes nothing away from said stories.

As a Black man, I get it, but… no. (Keira Chansa. Photo courtesy of Endurance Media)

HAVING SAID THAT, there are some times – not a lot, but some – when colorblind casting is actually a setback because of its anachronism. When Ryan Gosling appeared in the film First Man, there was a minor backlash about the film’s all-white cast. Had the complaint been about the trillionth film featuring such a cast, that would have been something. Instead, the backlash was that this 1969-set film featured an all-white NASA. Despite the fact that, y’know, NASA in 1969 actually was all-white.

We know this because the same year that First Man came out, the film Hidden Figures came out – a film that revolves around three Black women attempting to bust through the white male glass ceiling of NASA. Complaining about First Man’s accuracy undermines the struggle the Hidden Figures ladies faced.

I bring this up because as Progressive as Come Away thinks it is by putting Black actors in iconic roles from Western – specifically English – literature, doing so feels more like a means of sidestepping the problematic cultural setting from which these stories spawned. JM Barrie’s “Boy Who Never Grew Up” is particularly problematic, with its fetishized ideas of Native Americans and a whitewashed Caribbean full of pirates.

This isn’t a Hamilton-style setting of those problems on their ear, this is more akin to the end of that South Park episode that argues something can’t be racist if it shows all races taking part.

And truth be told, this flick would be lackluster with or without its Black cast. Interweaving classic English literary characters is tough enough for anyone not named Alan Moore (ever read Lost Girls?), but the Neverland and Wonderland mythologies just don’t work together. At least, not this way. The symbolism of each story is too distinct to think they can just stand side-by-side without problem. This film’s attempt to try and tie them into one mono-mythology shows that it doesn’t understand either.

Aside from all that, the film just isn’t very good. There are moments when it appears to want to say something about classism, but those conflicts vanish rather quickly – to say nothing of the fact making such commentary is hypocritical when the film refuses to address the racism of the area. And the film is just too damn dark and grim to tap into the joy and whimsy of its two source materials. Not that live-action family fantasy films are forbidden from being dark (I’m an ‘80s kid who grew up on The Secret of NIMH, The Dark Crystal, and Return to OZ, to name but a few), but this flick just wants to be dark the way Michael Jackson tried to play tough by wearing a jacket with buckles.

GRADE:                                                            C-

(Dreamstime Images)

In a recent interview, Oscar-winner Steven Soderbergh said that WB’s decision send its 2021 calendar to streaming is by no means the death of cinema. Rather he called it “just a reaction to an economic reality that I think everybody is going to have to acknowledge pretty soon, which is that even with a vaccine, the theatrical movie business won’t be robust enough in 2021 to justify the amount of P&A you need to spend to put a movie into wide release.”

I honestly don’t know if I’ll be setting foot in a cinema next year, no matter how much I’d love to. But one thing I’ve learned from getting to stream first-run films is something I’ve known as long as I’ve loved film: format does not improve story. No matter how hard you try.

And what do YOU think?

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