God Save the Screen

By Ash Wakeman

April 29, 2004

Henry VIII. Likes: Violence, Sex. Dislikes: God, Longterm Relationships

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After last week’s exercise in unrestrained mathematical wizardry and financial shenanigans, I posited a bold theory: that the relatively subdued performance of The Passion of The Christ at the UK Box Office was due to the fact that our refined tastes are not disposed to the gore and bloody violence that Mel Gibson has chosen to visit upon us. We are not, as some might suggest, a nation of decadent, Godless heathens. Should this theory be correct, the proof will be in last weekend’s pudding, as Part 2 of what is either Quentin Tarantino’s fourth or fifth film (the marketing is confusing me) wades through a sea of severed limbs and onto the UK screens. If we as a nation take this film to our hearts, my premise that we abhor violence is in terrible peril.

How much peril? Well, Kill Bill Vol. 2 easily topped the UK Box Office charts over the weekend with a healthy £2.8 million take, more than four times as much as its nearest rival. So far, so expected.

You know the drill (if you are blissfully unaware of the drill I recommend you read last week’s column and meet me back here in ten), multiply by 1.8 to account for the awesome buying power of the mighty British pound, up a smidgen from last week. Divide by an even sixty million, give or take, and we are left with around eight and a half cents spent by the average Brit on Kill Bill the latter, while the howling and baying bloodthirsty cinema patrons of the US (and Canada, don’t forget those guys) spent around eight and a half cents each on the same film on its opening weekend. Looks like I underestimated our thirst for blood.

Oh, dear. That’s my theory out the window. I guess we just might be a bunch of heathens after all.

This week's other new releases are largely irrelevant, Taking Lives and Win a Date With Tad Hamilton! made so little money that act of me pressing the buttons on my calculator to supply you with a comparison would expend proportionately more energy than there was interest in these two films on the British Isles.

There was a milestone for The Passion of the Christ as it snuck past the ten million pound mark on its way down the charts. This achievment is admirable, but it's even money whether or not it will be in the year’s top 20 releases come December. Likewise, Brit zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead hit the five million mark and apparently had a couple of weekdays in first place last week. The British film industry isn’t exactly wowing the world at the moment and it’s nice to see a quality British film performing well at the box office.

However, I suspect many of these numbers, such as the performances of Scooby-Doo, Kill Bill, and The Passion will soon be fading into insignificance. The figures we are talking now will soon seem like the yapping of chihuahuas compared to the booming bark of May’s incoming big dogs. An unusual metaphor, granted, but once I got it in my head I just had to use it.

If this column were a movie we’d now be well into the credits, up to the caterers or something. Most people watching it will have shuffled out, some complaining about how much it sucked, some saying stuff like, “So they are a bunch of Godless heathens after all,” and in doing so spoiling the surprise twist for everyone waiting in the queue to see the next screening, many more shaking their heads confused about the ending. “Big dogs barking? What’s that all about”?

What follows is that little bit after the credits that’s not really part of the film, it's Ferris Bueller telling you that the movie is over; that it’s time to go home. But instead of being dismissed by Mr Broderick, you lucky “stay to the end of the credits” people get to endure a cathartic ramble that pre-empts what I hope to be writing about next week: May’s big blockbuster releases. What follows is unashamedly self indulgent and most likely unnecessarily verbose. Apologies in advance to this amongst you brave enough to continue after that warning.

There was a point in time when I was convinced that Reign of Fire was destined to be the greatest film ever made. This belief was based on my absolute faith in a single concept. That concept was a fight between a dragon and a helicopter. To be honest, I could not understand why no one else shared my belief. Dragon. Helicopter. It was a revelation of almost divine proportions.

Unfortunately, it became apparent I was worshiping a false God. As the film was released in the US to reviews ranging from tepid to lukewarm, it became readily apparent that my judgment had been off. Sure, there was a little hot dragon-on-helicopter action, but the film was a dire mess that even my favourite Welsh Batman and Stoned Bongo Playing Nudist couldn’t save, bearded or not. I found myself in a downward spiral of shattered dreams and lowered expectations.

In the end, I never even bothered seeing Reign of Fire in the cinema when it was released in the UK. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Maybe some small part of me still hoped and was still clinging to that grand illusion. It was a while until I finally worked up the courage to shatter that illusion. I gave in and rented the film on DVD; it was pretty bad.

If you are still with me, there was a point to that lengthy fairy tale of woe; three, in fact. First and foremost, it was a cathartic experience for me. As such I apologize for dragging you into my own private neurosis, I really needed to get that out.

Second, I'm giving you some insight into my cinematic preferences. I am the first to admit that I am a man of simple tastes. This is true for most things in life, but nothing more so than movies. It only really takes a concept, a big budget and a couple of effects shots to hook me in. More than any other form of media, I appreciate movies as mindless escapism and enjoyment. This was not always the case; as an angsty youth I revelled in the obscure, the ponderous, the challenging and the disturbing. There is an extent to which I still seek out such experiences in other forms. Just not movies -- movies are my escape from all that.

Finally, I'd like to make some kind of point about the tyranny of distance from Hollywood or more precisely the tyranny of release dates. Being an avid movie fan in the UK and having an awareness of movie-related resources on the Internet means that it is difficult to avoid knowing rather a lot about a movie by the time it is released here. Following US box office means I know what has sunk and what has swam. This awareness takes a little shine off the whole movie going experience. It prepares me for what lies ahead rather than letting me discover for myself.

This state of affairs is changing. Of May’s four biggest releases, two (Van Helsing, the Day After Tomorrow) are making their UK debuts on the same weekend as in the States. A third, Troy, appears one week later. The final (Shrek 2) is delayed by a month or so, most likely due to it being a kid’s flick and school holiday dates differing between countries. This is a good thing.

Next week, I’ll attempt to do a mini-May forecast and see if my expectations for these films in the UK differ from that of my colleagues with nicer teeth across the pond. I say attempt, but I may end up talking about the wasted opportunity that was Reign of Fire a little more.

Before I forget, thanks to antipodean BOPster Chris, whose feedback last week was the inspiration for the first half of this weeks missive and the striking chap at the top of the page.



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