Crash of the Titans: The Decline of the Actor

Stars - J Law 2

Following a dour weekend stateside for new film releases, that ever-intrusive question is banging around the cinemasphere again: What has happened to our movie stars? Now more than ever films are sold to audiences through an expertly crafted marketing gaze, and it seems the most effective marketing strategy for studios these days is to repeat that which was once successful.

Through no fault of their own, actors are no longer truly bankable; even the biggest and best have financial flops lingering in their back catalogues like an unwanted infection. The same could be said for directors, many of whom have helmed a financial disappointment. If you’re not Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese, chances are you’re not getting top billing on the poster. In fact hiring less well-known directors to oversee large productions is becoming an increasingly popular trend in Hollywood.

Instead, distributors are all wrapped up in promoting a marketable product these days. It’s partly why franchises are in vogue; they have a ready-made narrative structure in place and are therefore easier to sell. Skyfall currently flies the most successful British film ever made banner and, as good as his performance is in the film, chances are people didn’t scramble to their nearest cinema to catch a glimpse of Daniel Craig. They went for James Bond, the character, the familiar entity. Jennifer Lawrence is arguably the world’s most in demand actor, a reputation she has carved out for herself by being very good in two huge movie series (The Hunger Games and X-Men).

In the US, this past weekend saw name-value take another hit: Bradley Cooper and Sandra Bullock both had films released, and both films succumbed to poor box office returns. Cooper stars in Burnt, a culinary drama that took as little as $5 million, while Bullock’s vehicle is the political comedy Our Brand Is Crisis. The latter only managed to recoup $3.2 million of its $28 million budget. As those films struggled, grander ventures such as The Martian continued to reign supreme — thankfully, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi jaunt is one of the year’s best (another, in fairness, is franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road).

Stars - Sandra Bullock

While middle-of-the-road outings such as Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis feel the weight of their franchise-less, big budget-less predicaments, the past 12 months have brought us this lot: Jurassic World, Fast & Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Minions, four sequels (or prequel in the case of Minions) that greatly emphasised their pre-existing worlds during the sales pitch. Heck, Jurassic World went full throttle and unveiled distinctly recognisable posters to the world before incorporating an updated version of John Williams’ wonderful score in its trailer. Those movies, incidentally, are four of cinema’s largest ever grossers.

If the waning power of the actor wasn’t so explicitly obvious before, Suffragette may well have totally pulled the plug. Focus Features heavily promoted Meryl Streep’s involvement in the project alongside main players Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, even though the iconic actor only appears on screen for a handful of minutes. Presumably, the studio expected her name-value to grasp the consumer’s attention and subsequently increase viewership. Unfortunately, the film has only grossed $11.6 million up until now (it’s in its fourth week), $2.4 million short of its initial budget.

There are pros and cons to our present age of sequel-dom. On the one hand, we get to see exhilarating and smart blockbuster outings such as the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road and also Marvel’s Ant-Man, these films succeeding in spite of their pre-established identities. But we also have to sit through monstrosities such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, a film that when issued back in 2009 arrived on the silver screen warmed by the security blanket of a guaranteed audience. A film, sadly, that hardly values quality.

There are exceptions to rule — some may call them diminishing lights amongst the bleak darkness — and one of those might be The Revenant. Granted the upcoming film will be riding the Oscar wave, particularly given its director Alejandro González Iñárritu is fresh off a golden statuette victory himself. But even films touched by the shiny sheen of an Academy Award nomination rarely yield monster returns — the 2015 crop harvested a circumstantially low intake — and it’s worth noting that these often host the flashiest names too. Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender, is another potential awards-hauler performing poorly.

Stars - Leo DiCaprio

But back to The Revenant. There is an argument to be made that any financial success incurred by The Revenant will lie solely at the feet of its genuine A-list star, Leonardo DiCaprio. One of the last original flicks to make any real cash was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, also starring DiCaprio, though to claim that movie’s monetary success was exclusively down to said actor’s involvement would be a stretch. A genuine exception might be Spring Breakers, starring Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hugdens who, at the time, were Disney starlets. It made over $30 million on a $6 million budget.

A24 Films delivered Spring Breakers to audiences back in 2013 and since then the studio has prioritised freshness (though its movies don’t always boast big names). Its highest grossing picture thus far is Ex Machina, which featured relative newcomers Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alicia Vikander. Conversely, Under the Skin starring Avenger Scarlett Johansson failed to regain even half of its initial outlay. American Hustle, of the non-A24 Films variety, done well at the box office under the guidance of a conglomeration of star power: Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, and Jeremy Renner were all involved.

Is it a good thing? Recent history suggests that the demise of the actor as a wholesale draw has meant most studios see the establishment of a brand as the only way forward. If true this approach cannot be healthy, as it would almost certainly encourage a lack of diversity in cinema (many will claim cinema is already lacking diversity). You might argue Gravity, starring Bullock and George Clooney, is an example of a film that was beefed up by its two major stars, but even that was marketed largely as an immersive and stunning cinematic experience. Clooney himself felt the brunt of ebbing clout when audiences opted not to see Tomorrowland: A World Beyond this past summer.

None of this should come as a surprise. The days of the star system are gone and in their place we have a society that subscribes to Netflix not to see a particular film, but because it’s Netflix. A Will Smith-led Bad Boys can no longer make over $140 million based solely on Will Smith’s appearance. The solution, if there is one, is an entirely different matter, though perhaps actors don’t need one. Perhaps studios and audiences just need to have more confidence in original movie-making.

Stars - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: Metro, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures, 20th Century Fox, The Weinstein Company

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Ant-Man (2015)

★★★★

Ant-Man PosterDirector: Peyton Reed

Release Date: July 17th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Science fiction

Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll

Superhero movies are more popular than ever. They are financial juggernauts, crowd pleasers, cinema monopolisers. Since 2008, when Marvel gave unabashed life to the genre via Iron Man, venues have been awash with new crusaders donning new suits and old crusaders challenging old enemies. The average annual production rate is at least four outings per year — if we’re only counting those bearing Marvel or DC comic heritage — with only a handful of monetary flops to date.

In some quarters, inevitable suggestions of superhero fatigue are beginning to sound out (not over here, admittedly). Good thing, then, that Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is closing with a refreshing injection of sardonicism and locality. Despite the size-adjusting suit and Avengers references, Ant-Man sidesteps many of its predecessors’ elements. A good guy with peculiar powers does set out to stop a bad guy who lives for greed, but everything occurs within a grounded framework. If Ant-Man is a superhero film, it’s not quintessential Marvel.

When Dr. Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) game-changing technology is replicated by his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), the former S.H.I.E.L.D. employee recruits moral ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) in an attempt to scupper any mischief. It’s the classic origin plot and, as such, characters engage in quite a lot of backstory explanation. Hank and his daughter Hope, played by Evangeline Lilly, go through the verbal wringer in record time; from a seemingly amiable introduction, the pair quickly develop a fractious relationship which is apologetically resolved before the half-way mark.

As opposed to being the product of many pens — Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd all have screenplay credits — you get the sense that this overeagerness to explain histories and cement rapports is an origin movie problem. It leaves relationship arcs a little fragile, particularly when the barrage of audible exposition could have been conveyed less abrasively through ocular interactions.

Lilly and Michael Douglas slip into their respective roles with confidence. The former should have more do to, especially in the final act when the action amps up a notch, but her version of Hope van Dyne is smart, tough, composed and fiery. There’s undoubtedly more fleshing out to come. With seventy years under his belt and a frazzled exterior, Douglas is well cast as the ousted scientist with a chip on his shoulder. His early intentions are concrete (“As long as I’m alive, nobody will ever have the formula”) but Pym’s tragic past increasingly urges him to put his daughter ahead of the end goal.

For this is, more than anything, a film about familial care and compassion. Scott Lang’s previous criminal rightdoings — like a modern day Robin Hood, he illegally redistributed a lot of money to a lot of customers — get in the way of him seeing his daughter. There is desperation in Paul Rudd’s eyes, though nothing too melodramatic. He excels, relaying a brazen charm that is only bolstered by his principled thievery. His character could have been a psychopath and it wouldn’t have mattered; we were always going to root for Rudd anyway. The actor rewards that loyalty with one of the most likeable MCU performances so far: awkward and evasive, yet wholly endearing.

The humour is consistent throughout. It is a mellower first half, where Rudd’s pre-costume antics resemble his downbeat comedy roles (such as Role Models or This Is 40). Scott gets fired from his job for being an ex-con but his oddball boss allows him to nab a free Mango Fruit Blast before he leaves. Director Peyton Reed borrows some of Marvel’s wit and meshes that with Apatow-esque flippancy. As the film progresses occasional chuckles make way for frequent guffaws. A naive Michael Peña is tremendously amusing, similarly getting increasingly funnier: “Baaaack it up, back it up slowly,” is one of many comedic highpoints.

But Ant-Man opts for more than just plain wisecracks, poking fun at its genre — and, by definition, Marvel — too with loving cynicism. Edgar Wright, who vacated the directorial seat citing creative differences shortly before the start of filming, is still around in spirit. Any playful sarcasm is almost certainly his, low-key and delightfully devious, and the frequently zany score sounds like something out of his wheelhouse. Two Peña explanation montages have the same swooshy momentum as Simon Pegg’s zombie dodging plans in Shaun of the Dead (apparently those sequences are spawns of Reed and McKay). At one point Ant-Man sprints across a small-scale model city as pursuing bullets send cardboard splinters all over — a mini, tongue-in-cheek jab at the likes of Avengers Assemble and Man of Steel. We’re at a point now where the grandiose madness, the ridiculousness of superhero movies, can be the butt of the joke without consequence.

Far from a genre that lacks superior visual quality, it is still worth noting the brilliant technical work on display during Ant-Man. Our first insect adventure is exceedingly slick and inventive, shot in a way that somehow provokes genuine exhilaration from a tiny man getting stuck in a hoover and scampering away from a rat. The shrinking too provides a new avenue for action-drama; rather than lambasting us with shoot-outs, fun heists from the Mission: Impossible school of versatility prevail. Russell Carpenter’s colourful cinematography is also aided by Dan Lebental and Colby Parker, Jr.’s momentum-driving editing: our hero’s anti-Herculean training montage is funny, believable and moves the plot forward.

Only when someone mentions the Avengers — whose non-appearance is put down to Pym’s wariness of Tony Stark’s techno-autocrat sensibilities, and given Stark’s arc in Avengers: Age of Ultron we are inclined to side with Pym on this one — does it strike you that Ant-Man is part of their universe. The world doesn’t need saving here. Although there are Armageddon implications, the film’s disciplined approach localises any reverberations. Neither format is right or wrong, but the second is less worn out and that’s hugely beneficial. The silliness gets over more because characters are not surrounded by Norse Gods with flying hammers or angry green mutant beings — a scene showing ants juggling sugar cubes would probably get lost in those fantasies, but here it is odd and amusing.

This quasi-minimalist structure also adds weight to the villainous Darren Cross’ suggestion that his Ant-Man copycat suit will solve geopolitical tensions outwith plain sight. The idea reflects notions of surveillance and higher powers undermining their citizens’ privacy. Wright and company flirt with the Snowden effect but the movie probably isn’t as incisive as it wants to be, otherwise it might have made a compelling thematic companion piece to the more confident Captain America: The Winter Solider.

Ant-Man is a genre rebel though, a sneaky outcast doing its own sly thing. The very fact that it is less integral to the overarching MCU saga than any other film up until now is what makes the flick so attractive. Forget its bite-sized impact, this one has left a Hulking impression.

Ant-Man - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures