As our readers know from our extensive Oscars coverage, we love movies. We want to see the film industry thrive and grow and remain a vital art form into the next century, especially when such thriving and growth gives us pictures such as 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. But increasingly Hollywood seems to be operating on an uncomfortable formula. To wit, big-budget high-concept action spectacles with aliens, superheroes, and other visual wonders get released from May to August, the end of the year gives us Oscar contenders made with a bit more intelligence, such as those films mentioned above, and the rest of the time, middling movies, bad movies, movies targeted to ultra-specific demographics, and movies the studios just don’t know what to do with get shot out of the cannon in hopes of clicking. What I dislike about this pattern is that it can obscure some of the possibilities there are for innovation in the Hollywood system. The giant movies can have as much depth and intelligence as Oscar bait, the smaller movies don’t have to be works of high art to be really good, and there are a lot of potentially great films to be made that the powers that be in Los Angeles are wary of taking a chance on, but which audiences would really love to see. To illustrate these possibilities, I examined the canon of an actress who is increasingly becoming a household name.
Kristen Bell is one of a small group of actors who are, arguably, harder NOT to love. She’s talented, versatile, and beautiful in a way that doesn’t make her seem out of reach, and at her most ideal combines the traits of both Katherine and Audrey Hepburn. She has Audrey’s almost childlike classiness, a temperament which stays poised but will refreshingly break into euphoria from time to time. (Witness the Sloth Meltdown.) At the same time, she also has Katharine’s memorable, straight-talking wit, as well as an irrepressible energy for any conflict she finds herself in, an energy of which characters who oppose her are wise to fear.
With that perfect vision of hindsight, she has made made her name playing the right character at the right time. The Reagan years (I’m sure few would argue) launched the widening gap between economic and social classes which occupies so much of our mental energy today, and brought home just how disparate the distribution of certain key elements of the American Dream were: opportunity, security, justice. Whatever else one can say of Veronica Mars, so perfectly enacted by Bell, the girl detective saw injustice all around her and never took it sitting down, fighting tooth, claw, and appropriately snide tongue against it without ceasing.
Since Veronica Mars went off the air, Bell has worked steadily. Even as her star has risen higher, the projects she chooses remain delightfully varied, ranging from small adaptations of Neil LaBute to six years narrating an unexpectedly popular soap opera. And among these projects, three specific films she made in the last three years caught our attention.
First, a film which Bell, like all three of these movies, received top billing in…
Since Karen wrote her terrific review for us, Frozen passed Toy Story 3 to become the highest-grossing animated film ever made…it seems children didn’t mind that they got an emotional tale of two sisters learning self-discovery and acceptance instead of the romp with the talking snowman and the smart reindeer that the ads promised. One thing I noticed about Frozen when reading other reviews and placing them beside Karen’s (and this links back to an observation I made regarding Wreck-It Ralph that Disney was making movies taking into account our particular generation’s transition into adulthood) was that a general theme seemed to be running throughout most of the film’s criticism. Essentially, the running thesis seemed to be the following: Frozen was good; it could have been better. It was not as groundbreaking as we’d hoped it might have been once we caught on to the real story. However, we were ready to give it the thumbs up for what it did, what it aimed for, and what it promised for the future. It certainly was not the first Disney film to feature strong and determined female characters front and center, (ignoring Mulan and The Princess and the Frog would be a crime) but in making the central relationship between two women, by spitting in the face of Disney princess cliches regarding matrimony, dreaming instead of doing, and such, Frozen at the least showcased an awareness that is always the first step toward solution.
Hollywood has suffered for a long while from a paucity of female writers and directors, as well as circumscribed genre, plot, and theme for female-dominated movies. The phenomenal success of both Frozen and The Hunger Games movies, with even the smaller but still considerable Divergent on their coattails, should be a resounding call that audiences will turn out to see women take the lead as heroes and villains in all sorts of pictures, owning their gender, playing characters that had to be female and not gender-blind, but not being entirely defined by that gender. It is a growing shift of which I want to see maintain its momentum.
From the spectacular to the “What happened?,” I turn to last month’s release of Veronica Mars: The Motion Picture America Literally Got Made.
Despite all the surrounding publicity and some good reviews (USA Today reiterated what a terrific role model Veronica is for girls), Veronica Mars did not even earn its low cost back at the box office…but that really wasn’t the point. Nor is it the point if the film, which I didn’t see, worked as a movie or was sort of a glorified reunion special. The point is that Rob Thomas pitched this project to an audience through channels and networks filmmakers had never had such grand-scale access to before, and the audience responded, ultimately giving this film a nationwide release. It achieved everything that it had set out to do.
In doing so, it reminded me of one of my favorite lines of George Carlin, which states that “people can always be counted on to do one of two things: take a good idea and run it completely into the ground, and take a bad idea and run it completely into the ground.” Hollywood is famously the world where “nobody knows anything” and if an idea works (as the Veronica Mars Kickstarter worked), it’s almost a sure bet it will be tried again. It could possibly be attempted by very talented people who possess everything needed to create revolutionary cinema but lack the capital, or possibly by studios with an eye towards making a mindless profit by pandering to the masses.
At the root of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter is the notion of film as a democratic art form, something that is accessible to a broad spectrum of people which promotes communal experience (this was the reason I aspired to try to make movies in the first place). And if communal calls to action to get films made is experimented with again, perfected over time, it may be worth the occasional schlock if we get a few diamonds in the bargain.
Speaking of diamonds, the third and last film of Bell’s I’m going to talk about is a movie released in 2012 to none of the fanfare that greeted Frozen and Veronica Mars (I was barely aware it existed) but may point in the most interesting direction, and could potentially lead to works of great importance and high entertainment value alike.
The film is called Hit and Run. Bell both starred in and co-produced it, along with her now-husband Dax Shepard, who decided to go all Orson Welles and direct, write, and edit it as well. An action-comedy about a man who busts out of Witness Protection to get his college professor girlfriend to Los Angeles and the interview for her dream job, Hit and Run was made in ten weeks, and when I say “made,” I mean that in ten weeks they wrote the script, secured locations and a cast, and shot all the footage that got edited down to 100 minutes. They used Shepard’s own cars and recruited their friends to fill up the parts, including co-stars from Veronica Mars and Parenthood, Tom Arnold and Jason Bateman as US marshals, and a dreadlocked Bradley Cooper as the surprisingly likable main antagonist.
The whole thing cost $2,000,000 – and half of that was spent just to get the music rights for choreographing the major set pieces to Aerosmith, Lou Rawls, Little Eva, and John Hiatt.
Hit and Run was every bit as entertaining, if not more so, than movies costing at least 60 times as much. Most action-comedies are groan-inducing; this one kept me laughing from beginning to end. Bell and Shepard have Newman and Woodward-level chemistry and their dialogue is intelligent, emotional, and full of wit. The action sequences made me think of how Shane Carruth shot Primer for $50,000 and made it look like it cost millions: they would not have been out of place in any big studio film. Indeed, the duel between Shepard and Bell in one car and Cooper and Joy Bryant in the other at an abandoned airfield, with Jimi Hendrix wailing on “Voodoo Chile” in the background, is impressive, exhilarating filmmaking.
Here’s why I dwell on Hit and Run: usually when name actors decide to make their own projects (think George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt), they make weighty, ambitious fare aiming for high art, and I’m glad they do because the results can be worthy of the highest superlatives. However, this movie was made not to try to create art, nor with aspirations of greatness, but for the parties involved to have a fun time with a genre they loved and a script that didn’t get studio-noted to death. The result was a really, really good production AND a movie that grossed just under $14 million without any buzz, one which garnered acclaim from the likes of Roger Ebert.
All of this makes me want to see more films produced in this fashion; it could be a magnificent new world when stars alternate their giant wide-releases with movies where they find interesting, creative things to do with genres and tropes they love, commit to shooting on a professional level, and simply have fun doing it. We need the ambitious, meticulously beautiful, but we also need car chases and goofy first dates and whatever the modern-day-version is of people getting hit with pies. It’s refreshing, it’s escapism, and when done right it still says something about the human condition. A world with more Hit and Run-style films would be a damn fun world. And it could lead to reinvention of genres in the right hands…think of how little money it took for Sergio Leone to change our notions of the Western.
As a final disclaimer, I’m not trying to label Kristen Bell as the harbinger of what’s to come in Hollywood…I’m positive there are many other familiar faces who are just as well-rounded on the paths mentioned above. But her recent success made her a topical example. Besides, no other celebrity is so cute with sloths.