Who Wore It Better: A Cinematic Smackdown

News flash: Hollywood is derivative.

I’ll pause here to let that sink in. I know it must come as quite a shock.

So I suppose if I’m a producer and I’m plunking down 50 mill on two hours of fantasy, I’d want as much assurance as possible that an audience would actually come see the thing. Copying an already successful project seems like a good way to hedge against failure.

If only it didn’t also lead to so much redundant boring crap.

Anyway, you should have had time to lower your pulse by now and be ready for a fun round of Who Wore It Better – Spectacular Cinema Jam, 2016 edition.

The way we play is to take two very similar movies and declare a winner. Kind of like if you were comparing Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp and Cosmatos’ Tombstone. (Hint: Cosmatos wins.) Or if you’re comparing Cal Tort and Chipotle. (I pick Chipotle, E. coli be damned.)

First up:

MargueriteMarguerite, directed by Xavier Giannoli vs. Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears

We’ll begin with two versions of the exact same story. Though the heroine is called Marguerite Dumont and the story takes place in France, Giannoli’s movie is based on the real life Jenkins. In the lead role, Catherine Frot and Meryl Streep are a push, both delivering expectedly stand-out performances. But Marguerite, despite some humour, is a mean-spirited movie, one in which no one really cares about the delusional character at its centre. Frears’ movie takes a gentler tone. Frears is no stranger to harder edged material, and there is pain, humiliation, and danger lurking throughout FFJ, but it proves to be a more uplifting experience all around. And it’s significantly shorter, not always a good thing. But since Marguerite runs at least 20 minutes past its Sell By date, it does matter here.

WINNER: Florence Foster Jenkins

The Fundamentals of Caring, by Rob Burnett vs. Me Before You, by Thea Sharrock

In the former, 18-year-old Trevor is slowly dying of a disease that cripples his body but not his mind. He is cared for by sad sack Ben, who is battling his own demons. In the latter, 20-something Will is paralysed and cared for by the spunky young Lou. Both movies ran the risk of becoming maudlin and/or saccharine. Both did a solid job of avoiding that by underplaying their melodrama. And both relied on the chemistry between leads – Craig Roberts (Trevor) and Paul Rudd (Ben) in TFC and Sam Claflin (Will) and Emilia Clarke (Lou) in MBY. The downside of this strategy is that the drama can lag because we’re not going for the big emotional pyrotechnics. This is more of a problem in Sharrock’s movie, which is ultimately a little more predictable. Burnett, perhaps because he does not play with the sexual tension in the relationship, seems to go a little deeper and hit a little harder. Plus there’s a giant cow and the world’s deepest pit. So, despite some fine work from all the leads…

WINNER: The Fundamentals of Caring, by a nose.

Captain America Civil WarCaptain America: Civil War by Anthony and Joe Russo vs. X-Men; Apocalypse by Bryan Singer

Look, I’ve owned up to the fact that I probably should just leave these super heroes be because I know they mean a lot to a lot of audience members and I am not one of them. But in the words of Tony Stark, “fuck it.” (OK, he never said that, but couldn’t you just hear him?) So you have these guys and gals who all have neat powers and dress up in Halloween costumes. Only circumstances conspire to make them all choose up sides and have an epic battle. I think there’s always an epic battle in X-Men, but here it’s the epickest. By the time they both get to the show down, both movies deliver. I mean, even for an old curmudgeon like me, the battle scenes worked. But X-Men took so much longer to get there. As usual, the Avengers just offered a more entertaining ride. And so…

WINNER: The Captain

The BFG, by Steven Spielberg vs. Pete’s Dragon, by David Lowery

You take one outcast kid – could be a boy or a girl – and you give him/her a supernatural buddy to help deal with all of life’s problems. (BTW, if I just waited until October 21, I could have had a threesome here with J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls, which looks, kind of, you know, like the exact same thing. But this is a family blog – no threesomes allowed.) It’s hard to imagine that Stephen Spielberg could adapt Roald Dahl and end up with something so … drab. For all the CGI magic, for all the spunkiness of Ruby Barnhill’s Sophie, for all the gritty realism of seeing the Queen fart… the whole thing remains lifeless. After failing with J. M. Barrie 25 years ago and now stumbling over Dahl, I think Mr. Spielberg should avoid beloved children’s classics from now on. Meanwhile, Lowery, in the toddler stage of his directing career, acquits himself quite well in this charming, minor league version of E.T. (BTW, what did ever happen to that director and writer?)

WINNER: Pete’s Dragon

(Just an aside before we tackle our final pair – not only could I have added A Monster Calls if I was just a little bit patient, but also on October 21, the Jack Reacher carve-em-up opens which I suspect will be a hell of a lot like the latest Jason Bourne carve-em-up. Just for the hell of it, I’ll pick Reacher without having seen it. Rarely stops critics. And even less patience – to September 30 – would have been required to lock Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon in a cage with Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours. I won’t predict anything here, other than the fact that Gillepsie’s movie will cost less. This of course, also skips over comparing the Ficarra/Requa strangers-in-a-strange-land Whiskey Tango Foxtrot and the superior A Perfect Day, by Fernando Leon de Aranoa, because, well, I already wrote about them. Check the archives if you don’t believe me. And well, buddy cop movies with Kevin Hart, like Ride Along 2 and Central Intelligence, are just becoming too much of an invasive species to really think about. You know, like we do with global warming.)

And now, on to the finale…

Born to be BlueMiles Ahead by Don Cheadle vs. Born to Be Blue by Robert Budreau

Jazzy biopics of troubled legends Miles Davis and Chet Baker. Cheadle goes for more, with a chronology that jumps around and adds a suspense-thriller sheen to his portrait of Davis. As talented as Cheadle is, this only works intermittently. It reminds me a bit of Robert Duvall’s epic vanity project The Apostle, which, as with Cheadle in Miles Ahead, he wrote and starred in, in addition to directing. It may be too much to ask from one man. Meanwhile, Budreau creates one of the year’s best movies and gets what might be Ethan Hawke’s most complex performance as Baker. Of all the movies in this discussion, this would be the one to see. And thus, the final winner is …

WINNER: Born to Be Blue

That’s it for now. But never fear. We will have plenty more chances to play. Because Hollywood, as a great man once wrote, is derivative.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

12 thoughts on “Who Wore It Better: A Cinematic Smackdown

  1. >It’s hard to imagine that Stephen Spielberg could adapt Roald Dahl and end up with something so … drab.<

    Wow, really? Because I find it hard to believe Spielberg adapting Dahl could be anything but. Dahl needs a fantastical director (just look at how well Henry Selick did). Spielberg's Tintin–his only decent movie in the past fifteen years, for my money– worked because he kept it as realistic as he possibly could given the source material. The only wrong-er director I can think of for it would have been Ang Lee. (Rowing sideways from there, I'd LOVE to see what Ki-duk Kim would have made of it.)

    • You make a valid point, Goat. Still, I’d like to believe that the director who got some pretty strong childhood wonder out of Close Encounters, ET, and Empire of the Sun could have done a little better. Maybe Fincher or Korine would managed the proper lack of sentimentality that Dahl requires.

  2. I have to agree with ‘Tombstone’. And as much as I am a fan of Miles Davis, I have no great ambition to see Cheadle’s film so Chet Baker has to win. Not least for his marvellous rendition of ‘My Funny Valentine’. (OK, I know it’s Ethan Hawke in the film, but you get my drift…)
    Nice idea, Jon.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • I usually have trouble with Hawke, Pete. But here he is really good, My vague recollections of Let’s Get Lost – a pretty good doc – suggests that he captured the essence of Baker, though it’s not really an impersonation.

  3. Or a blast from the past. Ray versus Walk the Line. Both films about men who accidentally killed their brothers as children, grew up tormented by this in such a way as to become musical geniuses and drug addicts, only to be saved by the women in their lives (in one case a ghost) and live happily ever after.

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