Armie, Channing and the Four-Quadrant Man Problem

armie

It’s not a great weekend to be Armie Hammer. His new film, The Lone Ranger, was DOA at the box office. Worse even, he’s likely to be scapegoated for the failure.

After all, director Gore Verbinski and co-lead Johnny Depp have been bringing in the big bucks for years. It’s not as if their partnership could be going the way of Depp’s partnership with director Tim Burton — no, you can put safe money that Hammer is going to be taking the fall for this one. While that’s disappointing, it was also totally foreseeable.

The problems with The Lone Ranger have been noted sufficiently already — suffice it to say Depp playing a Native American character in a mostly dead property was clearly never going to be a winner. But as scandalous as the Depp cast may have been, it was the choice of Hammer as the titular Ranger that puzzled me most.

Hammer has been in two films of real note: The Social Network, in a supporting role (that he was good in), and Mirror Mirror, which was all sorts of terrible (and he did nothing to save). Giving him his own franchise should have given all the Hollywood executives involved pause. He was an admittedly good-looking guy who has made nothing more than a minor splash at best in his previous work. What did execs see in him?

To be blunt: they saw a man’s man. And Hollywood is convinced it’s short on those.

Simply put, execs are obviously tired of the boyish male stars that dominated the late Aughts. Most big action tentpoles are being given to the same older stars who made their careers on such films, Jason Statham and The Rock being archetypal examples. Even Vin Diesel is bleeding the Fast & Furious franchise dry. Older actors previously unassociated with the action game are even getting into it — coming to theaters near you soon enough, Liam Neeson in Taken 14.

But Hollywood needs younger hypermasculine stars to fill these roles as the current crop gets older. Think about it: Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth are tied up in being Avengers (Hemsworth also wrapped up in the female-skewing Snow White and the Huntsman frachise) and likely will be for years. Jeremy Renner is too, and he’s also failed at the franchise game already (his Bourne film didn’t exactly hold up to the titular Legacy). And while Chris Pine might do fine work in his own franchise, he’s never managed to truly break out.

So Hammer was chosen to fill that “four-quadrant man” role: the type of action star who can headline a big franchise and be a romantic lead, too. On that, look no further than his sex-obsessed interview with Playboy, where he couldn’t stop talking about all his inventive lovemaking with his wife. That was such a bizarre move — off-putting for its bluntness and his unattainablity alike — that I’m convinced it was a miscalculation on his publicist’s part in an attempt to make him a sex symbol.

Hammer’s quick falter is likely tremendously disappointing for execs, especially considering their wunderkind, Channing Tatum, was proven mortal last weekend when his White House Down opened to considerably less than expected. (It opened behind the female-driven The Heat, but of course, absolutely no one in Hollywood will pay attention to that lesson.)

None of this is fresh analysis — I’m just restating what has clearly been an issue for a while. But here’s a newer question: Why are execs so obsessed with recapturing the past?

There is nothing wrong with the boyish male star-dominated Hollywood. Arguably, that system works more effectively than the antiquated “four-quadrant man” strategy. Look at successes like this summer’s Now You See Me — a surprise hit by anyone’s definition. Sure, it may not have been marketed solely on the strength of star Jesse Eisenberg, but he’s prominent in ads, and it’s working. Or look at smaller movies like Juno (starring Michael Cera) or The Social Network (with Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield), which made big grosses on the back of great talent. The latter even got Garfield a superhero franchise — though how good he is as The Amazing Spider-Man is a different conversation entirely.

Visit any collegiate theatre arts program today, and you’ll notice that they’re not stacked with the next Tatums. Far from it — these are the next Garfields, the next Eisenbergs, the next Tellers. Hell, the next Neil Patrick Harris is out there, and his lack of success on the big screen isn’t due to a lack of charm or fanbase.

On Harris in particular: there’s another component worth its own blog post, and that’s Hollywood’s continued discomfort with gay leading men. Consider the strange recloseting of Luke Evans when he was promoting The Three Musketeers. Or the brazen rewriting of Tom Hardy’s history of having sex with men. As stated, this is all worth its own post, but it’s just food for thought as to how it relates to the greater theme that Hollywood thinks men must be traditionally masculine to be a star.

Regardless of all this, Hammer and, to a lesser extent, Tatum, may not be filling their potential up to Hollywood’s ridiculously high standard, but don’t expect them to stop getting cast. Execs have clearly made an investment, and they’re sticking with their new golden men — no matter how tarnished that gold may be, or how ineffective the strategy is.

Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinpokeeffe.

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Bigelow and Boal’s Twin Protagonists

Watching Zero Dark Thirty for the first time, I was fully invested in the story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. As a docudrama about one of the most formative events in our nation’s history, I was riveted. It was gripping.

And then, in the movie’s final moments, I realized it isn’t about that at all. It’s about one woman, Maya (Jessica Chastain), a character dancing between the lines of real and imagined. It’s about her drive to achieve her goal, her total devotion to her craft and her aimlessness upon realizing that she had finally achieved what she had spent her whole life doing. As she says to her boss over lunch when asked what else she’d worked on besides Bin Laden in her career at the CIA:

“I’ve done nothing else.”

Spoilers from here on out on both Zero Dark Thirty and “The Hurt Locker.”

The line almost feels comic when first delivered – Maya is portrayed as hellbent on her goal, and though effective, her methods sometimes trend toward the ridiculous. Of course she’s done nothing else! Then, in the final scene of the film, we see Maya shed tears when asked the one question – perhaps in her entire life – that she’s been unable to answer:

“Where do you want to go?”

Maya is a woman recruited right out of high school and trained her entire life for one goal: the hunt and capture of Osama Bin Laden. She has, quite literally, nothing else: no friends, no notable family, no goal. She’s a dog who has finally caught her tail: what now?

Chastain plays the final scene beautifully, almost gasping for breath through the tears, in utter disbelief that she’s reached this point in her life. It’s reminiscent of another scene in another Kathryn Bigelow/Mark Boal collaboration, The Hurt Locker.

Much like Maya in ZDT, the protagonist of The Hurt Locker is single-minded in his ambition and goals. Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) is an adrenaline addict who is the best at what he does: deactivating live bombs. The most intense situations don’t faze him. But a simple trip to the grocery store after returning home to his wife and child perplexes him. He can’t handle being bored, and ordinary life bores him. So he reenlists so he can continue his live-wire work.

Maya and James are both fascinating characters not despite what we don’t know about them, but because of it. We don’t learn about James’ family until the very end of the film, but we’re never given more information about him than is necessary. Maya is a total blank slate, to the point where she appears to be nothing but a cipher for the film’s plot. Then, of course, you realize exactly how pertinent she’s been the whole time.

Bigelow and Boal are an interesting partnership, because they work on a similar wavelength. Both like logical, journalistic story settings, but both appreciate having a flesh-and-blood, relatable character at the center. Both embrace the best parts of docudrama while avoiding creating unemotional works. And both appreciate a tough-to-love character that is nonetheless utterly fascinating. It’s no wonder their collaborations have been so successful – and why Maya and James are so similar.

The two protagonists have much in common, and even their differences are telling – especially Maya’s lack of roots versus James’ family at home. At the end of the day, James would envy Maya; a rootless existence filled with nothing but dismantling bombs is his paradise. Similarly, Maya would prefer a world where she could chase Osama Bin Laden forever. Ultimately, however, James can reenlist, but Osama is dead, and Maya is left without any hope, completely unprepared for the world she hasn’t truly been in since high school.

Maya and James feel like spiritual twins, partners who might realize that they aren’t alone when recognizing their own traits in the other. Most importantly, they are the passionately beating hearts at the center of their films. Without those hearts, despite Bigelow and Boal’s best efforts, I think the films would have been so much less than they are. It’s easy to hope that Maya and James might be revisited in a future work, but I think I prefer my understanding of them still incomplete. It’s not what we know that’s most fascinating, after all – it’s what comes after.

Magic Mike

Top Ten Films of 2012, Part One

The last month of the year is an odd one for cinephiles – most of it is spent hearing different critics and critics’ groups dole out notices for their favorite films of the year, oftentimes films that you haven’t even seen yet. Such is the case this past year, which saw a great deal of discussion about three films – “Django Unchained,” “Les Misérables” and “Zero Dark Thirty” – before the general public could lay eyes on them.

Such discussion can be exhausting, which is why I personally don’t like to rank until the ball has dropped in Times Square and we’re firmly moved on. However, having finally caught “Zero Dark Thirty,” I am fully caught up on my moviegoing and can throw my two cents into the ring. Here are #10-6 of my top ten films of the year.

One note before the list: “Silver Linings Playbook” doesn’t make my top ten despite my genuinely liking the movie. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are both quite good in it – when Lawrence wins the Oscar next month, it will be hard to quibble with what is clearly a movie star turn, and I’m thrilled Cooper was nominated for what is easily his best work.

That said, I’m puzzled as to why the Academy clearly loves it so much. I think it deserved nominations for Picture, Actor, Actress and Screenplay, and that’s it. The Director, Editing, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress nominations baffle me. I’m seriously concerned it’s going to win Best Picture this year, which is a shame, because there was so much more worthy work, much of which did make my list.

Perks of Being a Wallflower

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment

10. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
Why is it so hard for Hollywood to understand high school? This delight of a film nails it better than any I’ve ever seen: a time of anxiety, discovery and pain. This film has so much going for it: one of the smartest scripts of the year, a truly heartfelt performance from Logan Lerman as the titular wallflower, stellar supporting performances from Emma Watson and Ezra Miller and just the right balance of innocence and the adult themes every high school student aspires to incorporate into their lives. If it didn’t have an awkward ending that leaves a somewhat bad taste (at least for me), I think this would be getting a lot more press this year. As it stands, I think it’s a gem that will live on as a word-of-mouth favorite for years and years to come.

21 Jump Street

Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

9. “21 Jump Street
A comedy remake of a dramatic ’80s cop show starring Hollywood joke Channing Tatum and hit-or-miss Jonah Hill? Such a recipe for disaster that could only result in one of the funniest movies to come out of the studio machine in two decades. Perhaps what makes “21 Jump Street” stand out is how clearly it should not have worked, yet flourishes with flying colors. It was the first major step in what turned out to be the Year of Tatum (technically “The Vow” was first, but that was just a commercial success, not a critical one). It was funny, fresh, interesting and a truly of-the-moment film, which is exceedingly rare (almost unheard of). An action-comedy is hardly my genre of choice, yet it works so effectively. That’s what makes it a treasure.

Argo

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

8. Argo”
I’ll confess to being less in love with “Argo” than the rest of the world, though I do think it’s very good. In fact, if the film had hedged a little closer to a more accurate picture of events, it would probably fall into the top four or five of this list. But whereas another film has become a lightning rod for complaints about legitimacy (you can read my blatant hypocrisy about historical accuracy in the Part Two post of this list when I praise “Zero Dark Thirty”), the issues in “Argo” are far more frustrating. Much of the problem lies in Affleck’s choice to show how similar all the actors looked to their real-life counterparts in the epilogue of the film. (He highlights all characters, of course, besides the Hispanic Tony Mendez, played by white as Wonder Bread director Ben Affleck. But I digress.) The film so obviously invites comparison to real-world events through this sequence, so its flagrant exaggeration of details is all the more distracting.

All that aside, “Argo” is still easily the most thrilling drama this year. It’s a major evolution for Affleck as a director, whose films have previously suffered from iffy dialogue (“Gone Baby Gone”), plot that strains credulity (“The Town”) and an obsession with Boston (all of the above). Wildly entertaining and full of great ensemble work, “Argo” deserves its praise and more.

Magic Mike

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

7. “Magic Mike”
Calling “Magic Mike” nothing more than empty calories is a dismissal of what was one of the most fascinating looks at a foreign culture of the year. There are plenty of fascinating angles to view this film through – my favorite being the idea that no matter how beautiful Mike is, he’s so trapped in a world he doesn’t enjoy, when we live in a world that values beauty above all else (and our movies usually reflect that as gospel). Add in a stellar ensemble with every member of the cast serving the unique tone so successfully, two killer star turns (from both Channing Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, the latter of whom was so robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars) and some killer dance sequences and you get a really special film. It’s so good that it even overcomes the abysmal acting of female lead Cody Horn! “Magic Mike” is a bold, interesting film, one that you can’t imagine being made even five years ago. That alone earns it a spot on this list.

Pitch Perfect

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

6. Pitch Perfect”
I can’t remember a film I’ve had more fun watching than “Pitch Perfect.” Everything about it is enjoyable, from the music (those mashups!) to the stars (Anna Kendrick, please do every musical) to the über-quotable dialogue (“That song’s my jam. My lady jam.”). The film is paced really well, never dragging or moving too quickly, and almost every scene (that awful fight scene with the washed-up acapella group proving the gross exception) is valuable and interesting. I’ve heard plenty of criticisms about “Pitch Perfect,” including that it’s derivative of better films (“Bring It On” being the prime example) or that it isn’t as funny or witty as it thinks it is. I think that the criticisms are overthinking it – “Pitch Perfect” isn’t trying to be a classic. It’s just having a hell of a lot of fun being what it is.

Read the rest of this list tomorrow, including mentions for movies as small as a quirky independent film about young love and as big as a musical spectacle about the French revolution.

Top Ten of 2012

2012 in Pop Culture: What I Loved, What I Loathed

Back when I wrote at my old blog, Awkward is What We Aim For, I used to put a lot of stock into my Top Ten Films list at the end of the year. While I’ll still be doing one here, I want to make sure to see all the big films before publishing my list, and I’m stuck in an area of the country that doesn’t get “Zero Dark Thirty” until January 11.

So in the meantime, I wanted to put together some random thoughts, kudos and gripes about the year not only in film, but in pop culture on the whole. This is that list. In the interest of saving your time for better things (like going to see “Les Misérables,” for example), I’ll keep this down to one Love and one Loathe for each major section of pop culture: Movies, TV and Pop Music.

MOVIES

Catwoman

Photo Credit: WB

What I Loved: Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman

“The Dark Knight Rises” won’t make my Top Ten Films list no matter what, but the only thing putting it even close to the top was the stellar performance by Anne Hathaway as the Cat, Selina Kyle. This was the performance everyone was worried about. The Reddit types thought she was an overactive shrew who would screw it up. The cinephile types knew Christopher Nolan had written about one good female role in the past ever. (Mal in “Inception,” in case you’re wondering.) Yet the role turned out to be written as a highwire act between scorn and seducing, and Hathaway nailed it. Honestly, I enjoyed and found “Rises” more entertaining than the preceding films in the trilogy, “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” (though those are better films), largely because of this performance. If actors could be nominated twice at the Oscars, I would put Hathaway in twice for Supporting Actress – she’s amazing in “Les Misérables,” no doubt, but she’s just so much fun as the Cat.

What I Loathed: Almost Everything in “Django Unchained”

I really don’t want to waste more breath on this half-baked slavery porn “film” by Quentin Tarantino, but suffice it to say that I hated “Django Unchained.” It’s by far my least favorite Tarantino film – surpassing the “Kill Bill” movies, previously my least favorite – and one of the most infuriating wastes of two and a half hours I’ve ever had the displeasure of experiencing.

While the movie has the occasional bright spot (both Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio haven’t challenged themselves this much in years), the movie manages to be both excessive and lazy all at once. Tarantino loses the plot about halfway through, forcing characters to make wildly unreasonable decisions and act impulsively (when in at least one case a character’s entire M.O. was about being the complete opposite of impulsive) and transforming the narrative from one that had something to say about slavery to a much simpler and much more uninteresting one that was all about violence, nothing more.

I’m a Tarantino fan, no doubt – I loved his last film, “Inglourious Basterds,” and that one was plenty violent. So when I complain about the violence in “Django,” it’s not from a prudish place; it’s from a place of being incredibly disappointed with a great director. In a post-Aurora and post-Newtown world, a movie with this much gun violence deserved a careful hand and time to develop. Everything about “Django” feels rushed and focused on shock value instead of imparting an important message.

TV

What I Loved: The Return of the Female-Driven Soap

Nashville

Photo Credit: ABC

When I look back on 2012 in TV, what I’ll remember most is the devilish grin and delicious wordplay of Victoria Grayson. “Revenge” brought back the nighttime soap in a big way, but more importantly, it put women at the forefront. While TNT’s reboot of “Dallas” also played a huge part in the revival of the soap, that is also a highly male-driven narrative. “Revenge” is all about one woman’s fight for vengeance (Emily Thorne, an alias for Amanda Clarke) against a family with a masterfully manipulative matriarch (Victoria, of course).

Seeing two women in such powerful positions isn’t exactly new for TV – Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh Johnson started the trend on “The Closer” eight years ago, and several others have carried it on – but there’s something special about seeing women battling each other over something besides a man, a narrative seen far too often in film and TV these days.

“Revenge” has already spawned one successful imitator in “Nashville,” a fantastic soap about two female country singers from two different generations. What’s so fascinating about “Nashville” is that its winter finale created a situation where both women will have to work together – something the previews for new “Revenge” in 2013 also allude to. 2012 got the powerful women fighting – maybe next we’ll get to see them working together.

What I Loathed: The Manipulation of “The X Factor”

As part of a hate-watching experiment, I watched the live shows of “The X Factor” this year, and let me say this: if you’ve never seen a train wreck happening right before your eyes, you clearly weren’t watching “Factor.” Hoo boy, what a mess. Who thought hiring a Kardashian to be a live TV host was a good idea? Why is Simon Cowell judging on a show he is also the executive producer for? Should Britney Spears really be in such a high-stress environment?

So many questions, but my biggest one is this: Why is the producer manipulation so obvious on “Factor”? One week in particular saw a contestant who had been consistently in third place among voters, Vino Alan, suddenly stuck performing at the top of the show (a notorious “death slot” in singing competitions based on viewer voting after the show) with a song he didn’t particularly like. Of course, he was eliminated the next night.

What’s especially gross is that when the manipulation outright failed (Cowell’s favored act Emblem3 missing out on making the finals, for example), things just fell by the wayside. The best act in the competition, girl group Fifth Harmony, made it into the finals as an underdog act, but couldn’t possibly get out of third place after their mentor (Cowell) spent so much time promoting Emblem3. Meanwhile, the winner wound up being a 37-year old country singer who may have many things, including a decent voice and a loving family, but he certainly does not have the X Factor.

All in all, the season was a spectacular failure, but I do believe that with less manipulation, the show could get good. Below, watch the best performance of the crappy season: Fifth Harmony’s take on Ellie Goulding’s “Anything Could Happen.”

POP MUSIC

What I Loved: “Wrong Direction,” Tim Urban

I liked a lot of artists and songs in 2012, even if most of it was rehash from 2011: the irresistible Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” the pure pop perfection of One Direction, Gotye’s slinky and surprising “Somebody That I Used to Know,” Macklemore’s gorgeous tribute to marriage equality “Same Love,” Taylor Swift’s impressive foray into dubstep with “I Knew You Were Trouble” and the emergence of new bands like Imagine Dragons, Of Monsters and Men and The Lumineers.

But in all honesty, the song that won me over most was “American Idol” season nine also-ran Tim Urban’s charmingly scathing (is that even possible?) breakup anthem to One Direction member Harry Styles from Swift. From the first line, “He was the wrong direction with the beautiful face,” to the ridiculously catchy chorus, the song is a pretty flawless mock of an actual Swift song, as well as a great pop song in its own right. Give it a listen – you’ll be humming it the rest of the day.

What I Loathed: The Fads of 2012

Let's Have a Kiki

Photo Credit: Scissor Sisters

Was it just me, or were people more prone to fads this year than usual? While some were good (One Direction, “Call Me Maybe”), even more were terrible: “Gangnam Style,” Kitty Pryde and the miserable “Let’s Have a Kiki.” The less said about “Gangnam” the better, and I’m glad we seem to have realized how disastrous Pryde really was, but the one trend that stuck all too unfortunately was “Kiki.”

Let me be clear: I love the Scissor Sisters. I love Jake Shears. I would probably have Shears’ children, and I’m vehemently against children. (Not just me having children. Children in general.) But this song is a massive stereotype, and an incredibly irritating one too. I know, I know, the Scissor Sisters are all about stereotypes. But I generally prefer their “Only the Horses”-type work, not this tuneless mess. Not only is it bad, but it has also led to multiple people asking if I like to have kikis. Ugh.

Plus, it led to this. And that is the worst.

What else did you love this year? Share in the comments – or tweet me @kokeeffe22.

Black Swan

Post Revisited: Reflections of Black Swan

Black Swan

Photo Credit: YouTube | FoxSearchlight

The PieceIt Just Wants to be Perfect
Original Publication: Awkward is What We Aim For
Date of Publication: December 10, 2010

Background: From 2008 til 2011, I operated my own blog, Awkward is What We Aim For. While there are some things I really liked about it, ultimately it tread too much of the same ground as I eventually tread in my “It’s K-OK!” column for the Loyolan, so I let it fall into disuse after a while. Going back and reading it, I’m struck by how immature some of the writing is – if I ever go insane enough that I decide I want kids, AIWWAF is not going to be what I let them read first. Or ever.

However, there were a couple pieces I consider ‘important’ in my development as a writer, and I still hold them near and dear to my heart. So while these stories won’t be uploaded to KevinPatrickOKeeffe.com, I still want to revisit them.

Conception: I saw Black Swan on its official opening night: December 3, 2010. I had been dying to see it since the first trailer was released months before. You remember the one.


Still creepy.

I was blown away by the film, entranced by its tragic beauty. Even in the face of those who didn’t love it, I couldn’t help but rhapsodize about it on and on. Friends were getting overwhelmed when I’d talk to them about it, so I figured I should try and put my thoughts into writing. Thus “It Just Wants to be Perfect” was born.

Execution: What bugs me the most about this piece is its title! I make the very point that Black Swan doesn’t have to be technically perfect to achieve impact in the article, but in the title, I sacrificed accuracy for an allusion. See what I mean about the writing being immature?

Still, what I really appreciate about this piece is how in depth it is. I’ve attempted to follow up on these ideas since, but what’s in this piece are real, raw, unfiltered feelings mixed with analysis. I can’t quite get this deep into this particular movie again, which is a shame, because there’s so much to write about, talk about, digest.

Revisiting: Still, maybe that’s the best part about Black Swan: You can talk all day about it, but ultimately, the movie is such a work of art that it can stand on its own without much discussion. Black Swan still remains among my favorite movies, up there with Sunset Boulevard and The Devil Wears Prada, but while those works have a finite amount of facets to praise, I’ve yet to find a limit of all the different, wonderful things Black Swan does so well.