13 Aug 2015

At The Movies: Fantastic Four, Amy

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 13 August 2015

Simon Morris wonders what went wrong with the new Marvel Comics movie Fantastic Four and sees exactly what happened to poor Amy Winehouse in the documentary Amy. He also looks at those once-essential elements in a movie - stars. No longer, apparently.

The Big Picture with Simon Morris

Recently the internet media outlet Netflix announced they are going into the film production business, and immediately blew their reputation as the smartest guys in the room. They booked Adam Sandler for a four-movie deal at precisely the moment when the bottom fell out of the Sandler movie business.

But in fact most Hollywood studios could have told Netflix that now is a bad time to depend on stars anyway, let alone the well past-his-prime Sandler. The days when one name above the title – Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts – could guarantee an audience are long gone.  With maybe one exception…

For some reason, Tom Cruise is the last of the big-time superstars to be able to carry a movie on his name alone - within certain limits. The fans want to see Tom smiling and doing stunts, and that means Mission Impossible. And the same goes for most people we think of as “stars”.

Robert Downey Junior has got charisma to burn, but he’s only truly bankable when he plays Iron Man. The same goes for Johnny Depp - even more glamorous and exotic, but only box-office when he gets out the Jack Sparrow wig for another Pirates of the Caribbean. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and Scarlett Johansen certainly sell magazines when they appear on the front cover, but their movies stand and fall for other reasons.  

These days, the buzz about the movie itself is often the selling point, not the names above the title. There are some guaranteed brand-names certainly – Marvel Comics, say, James Bond, the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises – but all of them seem to do equally well whoever stars in them. Nobody is expendable, it seems.

The one area where that’s not completely true is comedy. Comedy stands and falls entirely on whether or not you like the star. Case in point is the ebullient Melissa McCarthy. Her infectious enthusiasm, and refusal to let prejudice against the plus-sized limit her choice of roles, makes her a winner even when the films aren’t much chop.  And she’s not alone.

Seth Rogen and James Franco, Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, Simon Pegg and Kristen Wiig – they’re all distinctive, appealing and the chief reason for the success of their movies. But even when they’re not the Unique Selling Point of a film, star performances are important. We like seeing really good actors, whether they’re the leads, the villains or the quirky off-siders. 

Marvel Comics knows this more than anyone. There are some pretty big names in Guardians of the Galaxy, even if many of them are heavily disguised – Bradley Cooper as a racoon, Vin Diesel as a tree, Zoe Saldana under a ton of green paint. And they all add to the appeal. But the star performance came from the all-but-unknown Chris Pratt, because, by comparison, he was so ordinary. Chris Pratt has turned Mr Average – albeit a nice-looking, funny Mr Average – into the Man of the Moment, when he repeated the trick in Jurassic World this year.

Let’s face it, a superhero being super is nothing. Someone a bit like us taking big risks is instantly gripping.

But in fact this is nothing new. Many of the biggest stars have sold themselves as Ordinary Joes and Joannes. Not too smart, not too dumb. Not too athletic, but they take care of themselves. Pleasant-looking, rather than beauty-contest winners. Decent and considerate, rather than arrogant high-achievers…Yes, they’re better looking than us, but not ridiculously so, and they’ve certainly got better script-writers. But we know them, or believe we do. They’re us – at least the “us” we’d like to be.

This year, the female equivalent of Chris Pratt – sexy but not too sexy, funny but not try-hard, and refreshingly genuine – is Jennifer Lawrence. 

The Hunger Games may have turned the spotlight on her, but Jennifer turned out to be the complete package – funny and self-effacing on the chat-shows, as well as an Oscar-winning actress.

Above all, she comes across as someone for whom celebrity isn’t the be-all and end-all of her career.  There’s nothing quite as off-putting as someone who clearly needs your constant admiration... unless you’re Tom Cruise, apparently.   But, lest we forget, a real star is someone who combines that old charisma with some pretty impressive acting chops.  As Tom himself proved with his electric performance in Magnolia.

And, whether we like to admit it or not, we remain fascinated by stars on the screen.

We may not know precisely what constitutes that X Factor, but we know it when we see it. A star performance is simply one we can’t take our eyes off. 

They don’t even have to be the lead. Sometimes, like the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, a smaller part is the one that elevates an ordinary, comic-book picture into one for the ages.

Star performances are the seasoning of the movie business. Too much and it’s inedible. Too little and it’s bland and uninteresting.

And today we look at two contrasting films about the perils of stardom. Amy, the documentary about the self-destructive singer/songwriter Amy Winehouse, shows how the public fascination with her train-wreck personal life ruined her undoubted talent.

But first, a film that suffers from a decided lack of charisma all round.   It’s sadly ironic that this rare Marvel Comics misfire should be called The Fantastic Four.

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