Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The worst year for movies?

Is 2010 the worst movie year ever? Nope. That dubious distinction belongs to 2011. How do I know this? Because if teaser trailers for Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Thor, Transformers 3, and The Green Hornet function as a crystal ball then, well, I predict you'd be better off spending your $10 on a night out at the bowling lane than the cineplex.

But it was a pretty rotten year for the movies. In July, Joe Queenan wrote a widely discussed cover story for The Wall Street Journal asserting that 2010 was the worst movie year ever. The Los Angeles Times asks, "Did Movies Get Better or Worse in 2010?" And The Boston Globe's great film critic, Ty Burr, echoed the sentiments of many in his profession this week when he wrote:
How is a critic to interpret a year in film that just didn’t send him? Are the movies to blame or is he? For the first time in recent memory, I had to wrack my brain to come up with an annual Top 10 list. There were films I liked and even loved, but precious few that stood above the fray and seemed built to last longer than the long tail of their release patterns.

I think we — movies and the society they reflect — are in a period of profound transition. The blockbuster film is hardly a thing of the past, but it’s metastasizing into something that, within a decade, may not resemble a movie at all. Which is to say that the defining film of 2010 may turn out to have been the one released at the end of 2009: James Cameron’s “Avatar,’’ a looking-glass world of 3-D IMAX ravishment and narrative banality.

It felt as though popular culture took a long, deep breath after that film came out, and then, in late October, Cameron announced two sequels, the first due in 2014. Where Cameron goes, Hollywood will follow, and our children’s children will not watch movies but wade into a hi-def sensurround experience that should probably be called something else. Feelies, perhaps. At that point, the cinema as we have known it for over a century will have disappeared into the past. Like vaudeville music or network TV, it will become the province of historians, nostalgists, and other people wary or weary of the Brand New Thing.
Indeed, 2010 has turned out to be a pivotal 12 months for the movie industry. It was the year that decisively cemented a new division of labor in Hollywood that has been emerging in recent years. Movie studios now devote the bulk of their resources to creating big, special-effects driven blockbusters while television studios produce the kind of art-house dramas that Hollywood has all but given up on producing.

The studios have started to focus on what they're good at: splashy, effects-driven fare designed for the lowest-common denominator audiences (now in 3-D, of course, to lure people away from their wall-sized flat screen televisions). More than ever, it's the "high concept" premise and the name-brand of a "property" such as Harry Potter or an Iron Man or a Tron that is the big draw for moviegoers. In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly , Reese Witherspoon commented on how dramatically movies have changed since the writer's strike. "The movies that are being made feel different now.... There are a lot of really, really, really big movies about robots and things--and there's not a part for a 34-year-old woman in a robot movie."

In recent years, the big studios have shuttered their art-house, or "specialty", divisions. The independently funded movie sector, which produced a glut of indie movies just a couple of years back as investors sought to get into the movie biz, has dwindled now that there's a credit crunch in the economy. (Documentaries, the one bright spot at the cinema this year, are relatively inexpensive to make and continue to flourish.)

TV has stepped into the breach vacated by movie studios. Or, more accurately, Hollywood has retreated from middlebrow and highbrow Oscar fare (as The New York Times noted this week) now that one can watch drama of the highest caliber on television instead. Used to be that HBO had a monopoly on its tagline: "It's not TV, it's HBO." Nowadays, everyone else has caught up including, to an extent, the big three networks but especially channels such as TNT, AMC, FX, and Showtime. The very best Hollywood dramas I saw this yearWinter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, The King's Speech—pale next to Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Treme, The Good Wife, Mad Men, Damages, Friday Night Lights. Similarly, I laugh more during a half hour of Modern Family or Raising Hope than I did during the entire two hours of Date Night or The Other Guys.

Tellingly, The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote an essay a few months ago titled, "Are Films Bad, or is TV just better?" And The Denver Post's great libertarian political columnist David Harsanyi recently wrote a column titled "All the Drama's on TV" in which he observed,
Television — with its zombies, ad men ("Mad Men"), dysfunctional mafia families ("The Sopranos"), science fiction meets geo-politics ("Battlestar Galactica"), and decaying urban centers ("The Wire") — consistently has become the place to explore the American cultural and political experience.

This is the golden age of television.

In the 1970s, visionary directors were given wide artistic berth to create innovative, unsettling, hyper-realistic films for mainstream audiences. Such experiences are rare these days — in film, at least. Not only is television more intellectually stimulating, more topical and politically relevant, audiences today are far more devoted to it. TV is fulfilling the promise of the movies. These days, it is easier to imagine Travis Bickle starring in an HBO series exploring the grimy underbelly of city life and mental illness than it is to see a director getting away with producing a mainstream film as bleakly disturbing as "Taxi Driver."

That's not to say there aren't occasionally great films or even that mainstream blockbusters can't be entertaining — who doesn't need empty calories and escapism? It's just that most major releases alternate between the artistically gutless, the ineptly preachy, the hopelessly saccharine and, worst of all, the boring.
Harsanyi isn't exaggerating. HBO's The Wire is superior to anything that Martin Scorsese has done over the past decade, including Departed. (Scorsese himself seems to understand how good the television medium can be given that he directed the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire.) Simply stated, the best writers in Hollywood are working in television right now. The inherent advantage of the small screen is that TV series allow writers to create elegant story arcs and develop characters in a way that you just can't do in a 120 minute movie. The television medium has caught up to the big screen in special effects, picture quality, and cinematic quality. Watch any episode of Breaking Bad, for example, and marvel at how the directors are more innovative and, indeed, cinematic than many of their big-screen counterparts.

You won't see A-list movie stars flocking to television any time soon, of course, even though there's much richer material available for them on the small screen. Actors still regard TV as an inferior echelonthe place where you get your start in your early 20s and the place where you end up when you're in your late 40s and your looks have gone. Plus, big-screen roles usually pay better (though not always: Scarlett Johansson was paid a reported $250,000 for her role in Iron Man 2, a fee she willingly undertook to build her box-office reputation and bolster fan-boy demand). Big screen movies still have more prestige and that counts a lot for an actor's vanity. Moreover, even though the days on film set are long and arduous, a film shoot lasts about 6 weeks whereas the punishing schedule of a television series lasts 10 months of the year.

Now that Hollywood seldom produces fewer actor-driven moviesthe types of dramas that used to be the staple of the Oscarsactors are finding that they have fewer options available to them unless they star in a superhero movie. Indeed, A-list actors are seldom the reason to go to a movie nowadays. Look at some of 2010's box-office disappointments, for example: Cruise & Diaz in Knight and Day, Depp & Jolie in The Tourist, Hathaway & Gyllenhaal in Love and Other Drugs, Downey Jr. & Galifianakos in Due Date, Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson in the year's biggest flop, How Do I Know? There are just a few actors, now, who can draw an audience with their star power: Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep, Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio and, to a lesser extent Denzel Washington. Depp, Jolie, and Downey can do well in the right action picture.

I've been wondering why fewer movies are star-driven nowadays. Why are moviegoers more attracted by brand-name properties and high-concept plot lines than Hollywood stars? My guess is that it's because the nature of stardom has changed. In Hollywood's Golden Age, movie stars had a certain mystique. They had relatively limited exposure and, therefore, an aura of mystery. If you wanted to see a beautiful actress or handsome actor, you had to go to the cinema to see them, purchase a carefully choreographed interview in Life magazine, tune into an appearance on The Tonight Show or watch the Oscars.

Now, all one has to do is to log onto TMZ.

In the information age we now know so much about each and every celebrityand see them so often in the mediums of print, television, and the Internetthat we seldom feel compelled to get a glimpse of these rarefied creatures at the cinema. Indeed, we tend to care more about a star's personal dramas than we do about their fictional on-screen dramas. Case in point: Jake Gyllenhaal's recent "dates" with Taylor Swift have been a media sensation even as Love and Other Drugs became a box-office shrug.

Indeed, the very nature of celebrity itself has changed. Today's biggest stars are arguably the C-listers on Dancing with the Stars, The Jersey Shore or The Housewives of Beverly Hills or Living with the Kardashians. These stars are happy to let their personal dramas play out on Twitter, Perez Hilton, and US Weekly. I'd argue that Kim Kardashian, a multi-millionairess who gets paid $10,000 for each product she endorses on Twitter, is probably a bigger star than most supposedly A-list actresses.

So, in sum, big changes all around in Hollywood that will ripple over the coming decade. Despite my pessimism through this blog post, I'll end by noting that the future isn't all doom and gloom for cinema. In the week-to-week competition at the box office, it's the movies with the best writing and strongest characters that often, if not always, win out in the long run, as this New York Times article observes. Splashy special effects and noisy bluster can only get you so far. (That's Tron: Legacy in a nutshell.) Pixar built its empire on the foundation of great scripts. And Inception was a powerful reminder that a great original blockbuster can pay off huge at the box office. In the years to come, the likes of Darren Aronofsky, Jean-Pierre Jeneut, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Alfonso Cuarón, David Fincher and Steven Spielberg will produce blockbuster fare that caters to the head and heart. And for everything else there's always television...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Robert Plant interview

My in-depth interview with Robert Plant for American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, is now on newsstands ... er ... I mean airplane seats. Don't worry, you needn't catch a flight to read it -- follow this link to read the full feature.

The interview with Plant was one of the highlights of my journalistic career. I was 12 years old and living in South Africa when I first heard Robert Plant's 1985 single Little By Little. It sounded unlike anything else on the music scene at the time and it's harrowingly emotional vocal instantly resonated with me. I'd never heard of Plant before then, nor even Led Zeppelin, but nevertheless saved up my pocket money to buy his third solo album, Shaken 'n' Stirred. Plant is my all-time favorite artist and over the past 25 years I've followed his every unpredictable move. He's one of the few artists of his generation -- or any other -- who continually seeks out new paths to explore rather than taking the easy road of commercialism.

Of course, you know the old adage: Never meet your heroes, they always disappoint. That hasn't been the case with Robert. This is the second time I've interviewed Robert and though the previous interview was terrific, it was an all-too-brief 20 minute chat. This time around, I had an hour on the phone with the singer and it felt more like a breezy conversation than a formal Q&A session. Robert was on hand to talk about his great new album, Band of Joy (which I reviewed for Under the Radar magazine) and he was gracious, thoughtful, funny, open and fully engaged. He is as sincerely personable and grounded as people say he is. After the interview, Robert called up his manager to tell her how much he'd enjoyed it. To say the least, the feeling was mutual.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Best albums of 2010

Forgive my lack of blog posts in quite a while. I recently started writing a novel, a literary thriller, and it's occupying most of my time when I am not freelancing for various magazines. (I'm very active on Twitter, though, so follow me on @steve_humphries.)

But I thought I'd s
hare my 30 favorite albums of 2010. As always, it's an almost preposterous task to rank such disparate albums in a wide variety of genres into a strict ranking.

Doubtless, there are other fine albums
released this year that have escaped my notice. For example, even though I own all the albums by The Czars, I've yet to buy lead singer John Grant's solo record Queen of Denmark, which featured highly in many top 10 lists this year, including Mojo magazine's # 1 pick for 2010.

Best albums of 2010

1) Shearwater is America's greatest band right now. Their past three albums are masterpieces. Yet, even though music blogs and the music press is aware of Shearwater and dutifully provides coverage, the band sorely lacks high-profile champions in the music press to elevate its profile. (Honorable exceptions: The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot and the music site Drowned in Sound.) Nowadays, music journalists are inundated with new releases each week and many fall by the wayside because they lack the all-important buzz. As a result, I don't think most music writers listened to their latest record, The Golden Archipelago. Their loss. Those who spent many nights swimming in this record's immersive depth and complex beauty know just how special Shearwater is. Just ask Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Blackfield), who I introduced to Shearwater last year and ranked The Golden Archipelago his top album of 2010. Here's my review for Filter magazine.

2) Robert Plant is my all-time favorite artist. His latest solo record, Band of Joy, underscores everything that is so special about the singer. Some artists pay lip service to the idea of never making the same album twice yet merely end up creating variations of a particular sound. By contrast, Plant's solo career is as diverse Stanley Kubrick's filmography. As a result, Band of Joy is not Raising Sand II. Its 12 tracks range from blues (Central Two-Oh-Nine) to folk country (Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday) to an ethereal spiritual (Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down) to indie-rock tinged Americana (Monkey, Silver Rider). The blistering final track, Even This Shall Pass, sounds like a great lost Strange Sensation song, while I'm Falling In Love With You could easily slot onto a Honeydrippers Vol. II record. The delightfully catchy Can't Buy My Love marries the sound of a catchy '60s pop with a surprisingly robust rhythm section. This record has marinated deep into my soul over the past few months. Here's my review for Under the Radar magazine.

3) Jesca Hoop's Kismet was one of my fave records of 2007. Many singers aspire to the art-rock thrones of Kate Bush and Björk but Jesca is the true worthy heir apparent. Her leftfield musical imagination is uniquely hers. Her latest album, Hunting My Dress (I have no idea what the title means, either) is showcases her talent for tuneful avant-garde pop. Jesca is a big fan of Kate Bush and her fave album is The Dreaming, so that'll give you an idea where she's coming from. Hunting My Dress, which features a gorgeous duet with Elbow's Guy Garvey, brims with memorable tunes and deep-seated emotion. When I interviewed Jesca earlier this year, she talked about how the album was influenced by the passing of her mother.

4) Steve Mason: I didn't fully appreciate Scotland's Beta Band at the height of their fame, even when I saw them support Radiohead. Fortunately, my good friend Simon -- who has impeccable taste in music -- introduced me to the band's final album, From Heroes to Zeros, as well as their earlier albums. Steve Mason's first solo release (under his own name, that is) is far removed from the sound of his former outfit. Boys Outside is melodic adult pop that, oddly enough, could cross over to fans of David Gray, Swell Season, and Damien Rice. Occasionally, the album bears traces of Beta Band's sonic edge. What really stands out is how soulful his voice is. He's always had an appealing voice but it seems that some painful life experience has turned him into an emotionally expressive singer. Here's my review for Under the Radar magazine.

My surprise discovery of 2010 is Los Lobos. I had no idea I'd even like 'em. But when I heard their cover of the Grateful Dead's West L.A. Fadeaway, I was immediately intrigued. A five-star review for Tin Can Trust in Uncut magazine (the magazine I most trust for reviews) prompted me to buy the album. It's great. Memorable songs with strong melodies and choruses and amazing blues guitar. It also sounds great. Much of it was evidently cut live--listen closely to the title track and you can hear the hinges of a door opening and closing during the taping--and so it has a rich and atmospheric vibe.

6) Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs
The Besnard Lakes -- Are the Roaring Night
8) Field Music -- Measure
9) Foals -- Total Life Forever
10) Interpol -- Interpol
11) Laura Marling -- I Speak, Because I Can
12) School of Seven Bells -- Disconnect from Desire
13) Warpaint -- The Fool
14) Neil Young -- Le Noise
15) Hans Zimmer -- Inception soundtrack
16) Glasser -- Ring
17) The Black Keys -- Brothers
18) The National -- High Violet
19) Oceansize -- Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up
20) Blue Water, White Death -- Blue Water, White Death
21) Beach House -- Teen Dream
22) Crowded House -- Intriguer
23) Delphic -- Acolyte
24) The Acorn -- No Ghost
25) Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers -- Mojo
26) Sarah McLachlan -- Laws of Illusion
27) Richard Thompson -- Dream Attic
28) Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan -- Hawk
29) Patty Griffin -- Downtown Church
30) The Orb, featuring David Gilmour -- Metallic Spheres

Great songs from other 2010 albums

Engineers -- In Praise of More
Sade -- Soldier of Love
Sahara Smith -- The Real Thing
She & Him -- In the Sun
The Joy Formidable -- Popinjay
Midlake -- Acts of Man
Goldfrapp -- Rocket
Jonsi -- Go Do
Jenny & Johnny -- Scissor Runner
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings -- Better Things
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti -- Round and Round
Keane -- Clear Skies
Caribou -- Odessa
Gayngs -- The Gaudy Side of Town
Viernes -- Swimmer's Ear
Joanna Newsom -- In California
Broken Bells -- The High Road
Blonde Redhead -- Everything is Wrong