Home » New films: On the big and small screen
Film Review

New films: On the big and small screen

fil,

This may not seem like a particularly significant week in the film industry but, in my opinion, it is. It follows a slow week when, as often happens after a major holiday such as Thanksgiving, few films open in wide release. It also precedes what portends to be one of the busiest weekends of the year, with the new “Star Wars” film opening alongside multiple other releases.

It’s a week of extremes in style and content, including Ron Howard’s epic scale adaptation of “In the Heart of the Sea,” based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s account of the Nantucket whaler Essex. The plight of the Essex, which was lost at sea in 1820, was the inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” and the film uses the fictional device of Melville himself visiting the voyage’s last survivor.

The outcome is the kind of film that Howard is known for and the studio system has dominated – it’s vast and costly, and yet it seems doomed to failure. Releasing an action film one week before “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” seems worse than consigning it to darkest January. But this is awards season and “In the Heart of the Sea” is a period costume drama, based on a true story, and filled with tragedy and hardship, and so it’s a late in the year release rather than an early one.

Sadly, it’s also dull. For such a rich story, the film plods along with few surprises, even as events get as grim as they can be. The survivor that Melville, in the film, is interviewing is based on an actual cabin boy from the Essex who wrote his own account of the voyage years later. But it’s also the kind of film that’s largely spoiled by its own trailers and by the fact that the story is so relatively well known.

The screening I attended was also quite literally dull to watch. I couldn’t tell if it was simply poorly projected but the 3D glasses, which act somewhat like sunglasses in their shading, made the entire film appear dark and muted in terms of contrast. I’ve noticed this before with recent 3D releases and I’ve started to prefer to see 2D screenings largely for this reason alone. I don’t have any issues with 3D as an effect, or with the glasses being effective in rendering the 3D, but these overtly dark screenings are annoying.

Sacramento also saw the opening, this week, of the latest version of “Macbeth,” another period drama packed with inexorable tragedy. It’s a story that, although 400 years old, would probably appeal to a modern audience of “Game of Thrones” fans, if only they could understand a word of it. This adaptation layers essentially foreign Shakespearean English under thick Scottish accents such that even for somebody like myself who has heard plenty of both, much of the dialog is hard to discern. I suspect this contributed to several walkouts by members of the audience I was a part of. Without the added glasses, “Macbeth” is almost as dark to watch as “In the Heart of the Sea,” shot in brooding light, against smoky backgrounds, and somewhat like a gloomier “Braveheart.”

Both of these films are generally very well produced, with grand photography and solid performances. But neither seems destined to be remembered fondly.

Meanwhile, with an opening on the film industry’s traditional Friday release day, Netflix debuted Adam Sandler’s comedy Western “The Ridiculous 6.” This is the first of four films that Sandler is contracted to produce for Netflix and, again in my opinion, it’s a game changer.

It’s not as epic in scale, as one might expect, as the other two films described here – but it’s also not a film that looks cheaply made or overly rushed, in the manner of some “made for TV” films, for example. This is a “real” film that just happens to be distributed in a non-traditional manner. And some of the cinematography is quite impressive, including classic Western landscapes.

Not surprisingly, it’s a comedy filled with sophomoric jokes (including a running gag based on the bodily functions and products of a burro) as one might expect from Sandler and his filmmaking colleagues. It’s also a film filled with recognizable faces, including performances by Nick Nolte and Harvey Keitel – although most of the cast are more regular Sandler associates, such as Rob Schneider and David Spade.

The plot is based around a man (Sandler) who has been raised by Native Americans (a subject matter for which the film drew some criticism despite, as the filmmakers noted, having the word “Ridiculous” in the title) before meeting his real father and embarking on an adventure with his newly discovered brothers. It’s essentially a parody of the Western genre and works somewhat successfully on that basis. The comedy is broad and won’t be to everyone’s tastes but it’s likely to be warmly received by Sandler fans, including an unlikely encounter with Abner Doubleday (John Turturro) that spoofs baseball as much as the rest of the film spoofs Westerns.

And this is the key point. Fans of Sandler’s films will likely seek this out – including those who are perfectly happy to watch on phone screens and tablets, and those who aren’t in the habit of watching either films in theaters or content on televisions. The film also bypasses most film reviewers, who are often dismissive of Sandler’s work, and whose opinions are equally likely to be dismissed by his admirers.

In short, it feels like a perfect film to be released by Netflix – and is likely to be the shape of things to come. It certainly isn’t the first streaming release, but it could be the loudest to date. It also could be a model for other films that are favored by the demographics that make up much of the streaming audience – such as films in the horror genre. These are films that often incur marketing and distribution costs, despite no longer requiring thousands of physical prints, that can exceed their actual production budgets. A platform such as Netflix minimizes such expenses and completely changes the business model for filmmaking – with films being produced for known sale amounts and the concept of “box office” disappearing in favor of subscription numbers.

These are significant developments for those who have no interest in either streamed movies or content of this type. If greater numbers of film projects migrate to platforms such as Netflix, including those that are planned that way from the start, not just those that end up with streaming releases as a Plan B after aborted theatrical release intentions, then the theater industry will change also. Theaters are dependent on mass market films that draw audiences, often young audiences, in droves – and neither are especially driven by the opinions of film critics or award voters, as can be seen by comparing lists of award winners and box office winners. We’ve already seen changes in distribution that have impacted smaller, art house theaters – this is a change that could similarly impact the multiplexes.

So, while film critics and traditional audiences will ponder, and likely lament, the performance of such films as “In the Heart of the Sea” and “Macbeth,” the most noteworthy release of the week, I believe, is “The Ridiculous 6” – which is a game changer. And if only Netflix was as open with its viewership figures as the theater industry is, it would likely prove to be the most watched. Until next week that is.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

Support Local

Topics

Subscribe to Our
Weekly Newsletter

Stay connected to what's happening
in the city
SUBSCRIBE!
We respect your privacy

Subscribe to Sacramento
Press

SUBSCRIBE
close-link
Share via
Copy link