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Pabulum Tastes Bad

It's been a long time since the last real Front Row, Sofa, and the world has definitely changed in that time.

After September 11th, it took a long time for me to figure out what I could write that seemed relevant and timely, and which could hopefully make some people think, while still being entertaining and informative.

I entertained the notion of writing a piece shortly after 9/11 which would talk about how horrified I was at everything that happened and what types of things I felt should be done, but I realized quickly that I would be regurgitating the same things that everyone else was saying (and thinking), and that there wasn't much point.

Besides, this is a column about movies, and occasionally DVDs, and that type of political content doesn't really serve any purpose here (not that those types of thoughts have ever really stopped me before).

Of course, after a delayed absence it's sometimes hard to get the old neurons kick-started again, especially in any way that's meaningful, so I stuck to writing reviews for the website for a while.

Now, though, enough time has passed since the horrible events of September 11th to give us an idea of how to digest violent cinema in relation to the real violence that is currently destabilizing all of our lives. And with this in mind, I return to Front Row, Sofa, to hopefully maintain a once-again weekly schedule of updates, information, and of course my own personal, distorted views.

Since September 11th, some violent movies have tanked (i.e. Schwarzneggar's Collateral Damage) while others have thrived (Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down), and it seems that audiences are finally more discerning about what kind of violence they're willing to tolerate in cinema.

Real violence, essential to the story being told (as in Black Hawk Down), is sitting well with audiences and moving them in ways the filmmakers intended, while the "popcorn" violence of movies like Collateral Damage and 13 Ghosts is being dutifully ignored.

Whether the same types of results would have been achieved before September 11th is, of course, arguable. Schwarzneggar';s movies have not exactly been burning up the charts as of late (The Sixth Day, a far superior "Ahnuld film" to Collateral Damage, grossed a pathetic $35 million, while End of Days did only $67 million), and people do historically turn out for realistically portrayed war movies (Saving Private Ryan grossed $216 million in 1998 and Platoon grossed $139 million way back in 1986).

That's not to say the "popcorn" movies don't have their place, it just seems that audiences expect more good popcorn movies, and refuse to accept the shovel ware which has been the accepted standard of the studios for the past few years. After all, Behind Enemy Lines was nothing if not a popcorn movie, and it did a respectable $59 million at the box office despite having any real above the title stars. That's a pretty good score in a marketplace that gave Collateral Damage only $39 million (and Collateral Damage had the added advantage of being one of the films pushed back because of September 11th, giving it a lot of free publicity and exposure).

I suspect that Duane "The Rock" Johnson's The Scorpion King movie is going to have a little harder time conquering the box office than The Mummy Returns did last year. Not because it touches on any especially exposed nerves, but because audiences are not in the mood to be treated like morons. They want to escape the realities of life, but in a way that doesn't insult their intelligence.

Movies like Spider Man, Star Wars Episode II and Men In Black 2 will all still carry huge (probably record-setting) opening weekends, but if the studios thought the 50 and 60% second weekend drop-offs of the last year were bad, wait until the first one of these movies which gets bad word of mouth opens.

Audiences will respond favourably to movies which don't insult them, as has been shown with the openings of Ice Age and The Lord of the Rings. And movies which are genuinely good, receive a proper marketing push and can get screen space will grow legs which haven't been seen in years.

Look at recent openings like Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (and I refuse to call it the Sorcerer's Stone, because that's an insult to audiences in itself), A Beautiful Mind and The Lord of the Rings. They've all opened well, and carried their audiences from week to week, ending up grossing huge amounts of money.

Compare those three movies released in a similar time frame from the previous year, like The Grinch, What Women Want and Cast Away, and you'll see a trend toward audiences now seeing the good films multiple times and skipping the pabulum (like The Majestic'there's two hours and forty minutes I wish I had back).

Nobody would argue that The Grinch or What Women Want are great films, but they managed to hold audiences last year in a pre-9/11 world, and became record-setting in terms of their grosses.

Now, of course, this year the pickings are quite a bit better than in years past, so that obviously helps, but don't naively believe that 9/11 has nothing to do with it. Even looking at my own movie going habits, I'm less inclined to see movies which look like the studio is out to "front-load" and make a fast buck than the movies which seem to have some genuine heart to them, and at least an attempt to make something good.

Hell, this past weekend, Ice Age, a wonderfully made animated film from an animation company that virtually nobody has heard of, obtained the highest opening weekend gross for March ever ($46 million).

The "star picture", Showtime, with Eddie Murphy, Robert DeNiro and Rene Russo did only $15 million, and will likely top out somewhere around Ice Age's opening weekend numbers.

The other "big" picture opening this weekend was Resident Evil, which did a respectable $18 million but will (mark my words) suffer at least a 50% drop this coming weekend (will Ice Age will probably drop a more respectable 30%, with a large portion of that being attributed to the re-release of E.T. which is going after the same market).

In a post-9/11 world, where violence is a reality and people expect to be informed and entertained, audiences are sick of being pandered to with crap, and hopefully that trend will continue because it will force the studios to stop spending $200 million on garbage like Pearl Harbour, and encourage them to spend $2 million genuinely good films like Memento.

Of course, it seems like there is still a market for crap out there'how else do you explain the resurgence of Friends on television even though the episodes this season have been complete and utter crap (and if you don’t believe me, go back and honestly compare this season with the episodes of a few years ago). It just seems like audiences aren't willing to leave the house to get their pabulum.

Anyway, I'll be back next week with something that is hopefully a little lighter and a little less depressing.

I would do my Oscar picks for the year, but it seems strangely pointless because I suspect I'd be wrong. This is honestly one of the toughest years I've ever seen in terms of picking clear winners. With all the bad-mouthing and politics going on, it's literally anyone's game. It pretty much comes down to who didn't offend the most people. I'll probably do a post-Oscar piece commenting on what actually happened, what can be read into it and what it all probably doesn't mean.