Interesting changes -- both good and bad -- in the movie industry

Well, the purported Mayan apocalypse didn't happen on Dec. 21, so there's time for my annual moviedom overview.

It's been quite a year for the film business. Though total ticket sales have still not climbed back to 2003-04 levels, they do exceed the numbers for the last couple of years. And more films were released in 2012 than in any of the past 30 years.

December brought two big changes in the industry.

First, Disney bought George Lucas' Lucasfilm operations for a shade more than $4 billion (about what it paid for Marvel Entertainment with its superhero franchises back in 2009, not accounting for inflation). So Disney not only controls most of the successful superhero franchises but also has promised to make more Star Wars films. Additionally, it now runs top special effects house Industrial Light and Magic.

Second, Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" just opened in a plethora of formats: two dimensions, three dimensions, IMAX, IMAX 3-D and, most notably, the new HFR (high frame rate) 3-D. Filmed and projected at 48 frames per second (as opposed to the longtime standard 24 fps), the HFR 3-D image should look much more realistic than anything seen commercially so far.

Jackson will release the other two films in his Hobbit trilogy in HFR 3-D, and James Cameron has announced his intention to use it in his next Avatar films. But because HFR requires yet another (expensive) generation of digital projector, only a fraction of the screens showing "The Hobbit" currently have this capability — none locally, although new construction at Champaign and Savoy multiplexes might change that.

Although I still have doubts about the future of 3-D as long as it requires special glasses, HFR could well become a new industry standard in 2-D or at least a common alternative like IMAX.

Thematically, superhero films pretty well confirmed themselves as box office staples (as well as critical favorites) this year, with "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises," and "The Amazing Spider-Man" occupying three of the top six box office slots as I write this. (Even "The Bourne Legacy" was something of a superhero film in disguise, featuring a hero with scientifically augmented speed, strength, agility and intelligence with a secret identity and questions about his own identity.) Hollywood won't ignore figures like that, so we can expect multiple blockbuster superhero offerings each year for a while.

Disney has already announced plans to explore the huge stable of characters it acquired with Marvel. And although the Batman saga — at least as envisioned by director Christopher Nolan and his star Christian Bale — has come to a conclusion, theaters are already showing trailers for next year's "Man of Steel" (Superman). Marvel's 2013 "Iron Man 3" and X-Men spin-off "The Wolverine" are also showing up in previews and on posters.

It might be too early to consider this a trend, but two of this year's best films focused on older characters displaying competence in unusual settings rather than relegating them to supporting roles as problems for the main, younger characters to deal with.

In "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," directed by John Madden with a great cast including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy, several British retirees take up residence in a rundown Jaipur hotel for largely economic reasons. Coming to grips with spicy foods, bustling crowds, riotous colors, foreign languages and even more foreign customs transforms their lives, with ripple effects even among the locals.

Jake Schreier's debut feature, "Robot & Frank," set in a near future, stars Frank Langella as an aging cat burglar (also named Frank) suffering from dementia. Over Frank's objections, his son buys him a robot to take care of his daily household needs. Once Frank becomes reconciled to the robot, he begins teaching it the tricks of his trade and turns it into his accomplice. Both funny and touching, the film has one of the saddest reveals in recent American films — one you just do not see coming — but a satisfying ending nonetheless.

Actually, my favorite animated film of 2012 also deals with the elderly: "Arrugas" ("Wrinkles"). The Spanish cartoon follows a retired banker with incipient Alzheimer's as he enters an elder care facility at his son's insistence. He shares a room with an amiable old rogue who doesn't scruple to run the same small scams on his fellow residents every day because they never remember them. Its deft observations of the elderly characters are quite moving. If it shows up at the Art Theater or at That's Rentertainment, it's definitely worth a viewing.

An annoying structural trend firmed up this year when three franchises followed the example set by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" and turned one book into multiple films. Hollywood split the final volume of the Twilight saga into two films, and Jackson has turned "The Hobbit," Tolkien's relatively slim children's novel, into first two and ultimately three films. Lionsgate has already announced its intention to re-engineer the third Hunger Games book into two movies. It boggles the mind how many movies they could make from just one of Steven King's thousand-plus-page tomes or his seven-part "Dark Tower" series.

Turning to individual films, the drama I liked best and the one I'm looking forward to the most are both based on our country's (and the CIA's) involvement in the Middle East. Ben Affleck's "Argo," loosely recounting the CIA covert rescue of six Americans from Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis, deftly re-creates the look of 1979 Tehran and consistently maintains the tension even without a lot of action scenes. Affleck performs admirably both behind and in front of the camera.

"Zero Dark Thirty" deals with the 2011 assault on Osama bin Laden's hideout and his slaying by U.S. Navy SEALs. Director Kathryn Bigelow, who won the 2009 best directing Oscar for "The Hurt Locker," has already garnered critics' group awards for this year's film.

"Searching for Sugar Man" stands out this year in the documentary category as the most unusual "story behind the music" you're likely to see. Its first half plays out like a detective story as two South African musicologists try to discover what happened to Detroit singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. A virtual unknown in this country with both a voice and protest lyrics falling somewhere between those of Bob Dylan and Donovan, Rodriguez had a profound effect on South African youths in the early 1970s with two albums and then vanished. Rumors had him committing suicide on stage. The second half is literally wonder-full as the researchers and then South African audiences learn the truth.

Picking the worst films of the year is trickier than choosing the best since there are so many to consider. Of course, Adam Sandler came through once again, this time with the distasteful, thick-skulled "That's My Boy" in which he plays a slacker who became a father at 13 when he was seduced by a middle school teacher. With his grown son (Andy Samberg of "Saturday Night Live") about to marry, Sandler's character shows up hoping to make a buck off the TV rights to a family reunion.

Where Sandler's film very deliberately goes for the gross-out, Eddie Murphy's sententious comedy, "A Thousand Words," aims for enlightenment but winds up stumbling around in the dark. Fast-talking literary agent Murphy must keep silent when a magic tree grows in his garden and drops a leaf for every word he utters; when all the leaves go, so presumably does he. Made in 2008 but justifiably shelved for years, it's ridiculous, rather than funny, in both conception and execution.

"The Raven," an unintentionally funny thriller, follows Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) during the last few days of his life as he helps Baltimore police track a killer who puts his victims through the tortures Poe described in his stories. Casting Cusack as a taller, more macho Poe only magnifies the script's silliness.

So that's the year in brief. I hope 2013 is a good one for you and for the cinema.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film

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