Faced with a choice of kids’ films and superhero flicks this week I thought I’d venture a few reflections on the Australian box office results of last year, and what the 2019 Golden Globe Awards tells us about the forthcoming Oscars.
This is also a story about the declining fortunes of film criticism, for never has there been such a vast disparity between the views of critics and a movie’s popularity with the general public. There’s not much for a critic to say when the no. 1 box office hit in Australia last year was Avengers: Infinity War at $46 million, which earned $13 million more than second placed, The Incredibles 2.
I didn’t review Avengers: Infinity War, I didn’t even see it. Call me a snob but I couldn’t summon up the interest in yet another super-hero spectacular. I watch enough of these movies in the course of a year to know the formula pretty well: evil genius(es), conflicted superhero(es), big monster(s), impending apocalypse, massive destruction, endless eye candy, smattering of social and political references… ending with a platform for the sequel.
No. 3 on the list was Black Panther – a superhero flick with superior street creds because it had an Afro-America hero. This prompted seemingly rational critics to go overboard in their praise, in the same way they raved about Wonder Woman last year because the lead character was female. It’s a depressing spectacle when critics so under the spell of identity politics that they’ll hype a big budget, formula film because the hero is black or female. It would be impossible to love these films for the plots, the character development, the direction or the dialogue.
The identity virus worked with comedy as well, with Crazy Rich Asians coming in at no.10 in last year’s box office. Superficial, badly written, a stir-fry of wealth porn and cliché, Crazy Rich Asians was praised immoderately because of its “all-Asian” cast. Although it was as funny as an abcess, and most of those true-blue Asians were American or European citizens, this did nothing to forestall the adulation. Neither did it occur to the movie’s fans that probably the majority of films made every year have “all-Asian” casts. Hello Bollywood!
The glowing reception handed to this piece of trash is a symptom of an era when conscientious film criticism is being swamped by gushing publicity. This is partly due to a changing media landscape that employs fewer specialised critics, and partly down to the laziness and sycophancy of commentators who merely echo press releases and prattle on about celebrities.
In Australia there are distributors and cinema chains that treat reviewers with growing contempt, believing they get more value for money by simply beefing up their PR efforts in a compliant mass media. Unless reviewers begin to take their craft seriously they will soon find themselves surplus to the requirements of an industry that sees itself as a business, not an artform. When that happens the triumph of crap will be complete. Judging by this year’s box office results, it’s currently only about 80% complete.
The one movie in this year’s top ten that I’d call a quality piece of work is A Star is Born at no. 7. I went to see this film with low expectations and came away impressed. By way of comparison I even watched the three previous films named A Star is Born from 1937, 1954 and 1976. Bradley Cooper’s new version is so superior it’s not even a contest. The most disappointing of all was the George Cukor film of 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason, which is often referred to as “a classic”. It was more like a tragic epic, being both interminable and musically charmless. Never has James Mason been so badly mis-cast.
As for Australian films it was pleasing to see Bruce Beresford’s Ladies in Black come in at a respectable no. 27. Not only is this Beresford’s best effort in years, it’s a sparkling time-capsule of Australian society that should make us pause and consider the country we live in today.
Nevertheless, 27 is nothing special, consdering the number of stinkers that pulled bigger audiences. Bohemian Rhapsody at no. 4 is not a stinker, in fact it’s pretty good fun, but hardly more than a series of rock ‘n’ roll clichés held together with sticky tape. As a story it relies completely on the grand finale of the Live Aid concert. As a bio pic of Freddie Mercury it’s a ridiculous fiction. The entire package was rescued by Dexter Fletcher after the original director, Bryan Singer, was sacked, either for his negligent attitude on set, or because of pending sexual harrassment allegations.
The fact that Bohemian Rhapsody should have been voted the best drama (drama!) at this year’s Golden Globes came as a surprise, because at least two of the runners-up – A Star is Born and Spike Lee’s ingenious BlacKKKlansman – were palpably superior.
In recent years the Hollywood crowd has paraded its social conscience by handing out awards to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight. Today, under a President who is winding back civil rights legislation they prefer a popcorn film about a rock idol. Spike Lee may feel he wuz robbed.
It may or may not be reassuring that Australia is right in line with the United States, as BlacKKKlansman came in at no. 65 in the Aussie box office. It remains to be seen whether the Golden Globes leaves Hollywood feeling shocked at its own shallowness, opening up a path for more substantial winner of the “Best Picture” award. I’ve yet to see Green Book, which took out the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, but it seems to have the favourite kind of politics on its side. One suspects the Academy will quickly rediscover its social concerns, otherwise the 2019 Awards may turn into the apotheosis of Freddie Mercury. Mama mia! Mama mia! Will they ever, ever, ever let him go?
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 January, 2019