Sunday, April 29, 2012

In Praise Of The "Semi-Sequel"

(The second part of my previous post will have to wait. My weekend got a little crowded and I have too much to say to do it justice for now, particularly given the latest episodes of Community and Parks and Recreation, which seemed tailor-made for that topic.)

Growing up, I can recall no criticism of Hollywood more common than the general disdain I and my friends had for sequels.  They were the hallmark of creative bankruptcy, a cynical cash-in that was invariably little more than a pale retelling of the original (usually with one or two B-list replacements to substitute for whichever iconic actor refused to slum with whatever gun-for-hire director they found while the original director moved on to another "serious project").  Any movie aficionado who didn't want to get laughed out of the room knew by heart the movies that you could legitimately count as watchable in their own right -- Godfather II, Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Star Trek II and (with some small controversy) Superman II.

(For the advanced class, you could also discuss the certified short-list of acceptable remakes that improved on the original -- Maltese Falcon, Scarface, The Thing, The Fly, The Magnificent Seven and, perhaps ironically, Hitchcock's remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much.)

How times have changed.

While I haven't tested this, my best guess is that taking that old line to the junior high playground these days - that sequels are the lowest form of film-making - will get you blank stares at best, if not a chorus of "WHAT?!?"  Spider-Man 2, better than the original.  X2, hands-down the best X-Men film to date.  The Dark Knight!  To say nothing of Toy Story 2 and 3, and that's before we get the heady stuff for adults only.  Before SunsetManderlayLife During Wartime.  The worm truly has turned, and when Hangover 2 skirts by with a (overtly racist) retelling of its first plot, it is now the exception instead of the all-too-expected norm.

This is the era of the franchise, the tent-pole, and if a movie like John Carter cannot launch a trilogy, then it must be a failure  A cautionary tale.  A major studio let-down, since sequels are now assumed to be part of the package, even when it doesn't necessarily make any sense to split a single movie into two or more films (need an example?).

On the one hand, this is a great development for both the Fan Boys and - I'd argue - for the  movie-going public in general.  Early efforts to condense a sprawling epic like Lord of the Rings were doomed to failure.  Three-hour films were considered box office poison around the time that Kevin Costner had to endure a million taunts that Dances With Wolves - a.k.a. "Kevin's Gate" - was doomed to failure, if only due to its length.  Had Lord of the Rings been made in any other decade, we would have suffered a quickie, 2-hour-plus sham of a movie (plus maybe - maybe - a half-hour made-for-TV Hobbit companion piece for the holidays).  While the films still have their detractors, it's hard to argue that the films aren't light years more faithful than anything we could have hoped to get before.

So what's the problem?  What's on the other hand?  On the other hand is the inevitable studio logic that sequels are "product" and must keep to the script to avoid toying with an audience's expectations.  It's all well-and-good that Batman Begins ends with the joker card cliffhanger to let the audience know that a sequel is on its way ... Same Bat-Director! Same Bat-Cast!  But what if, just imagine, for sh!ts-and-giggles, we had a little indie sideways sequel to give us a little more of Lt. Gordon?  Or a vignette about the fallout in Gotham's criminal underworld with the arrival of the batman? I'm a fan of the Gotham Knight cartoons for just that reason, but why limit the storytelling canvas to animated straight-to-DVD?

Enter the "sort-of sequel":

Now, I have no idea if this is going to be a great or even good movie.  Nor would I list these side characters in Knocked Up among those I really wanted to see get their own movie.  And yes, I know that Get Him To The Greek is basically the same "semi-sequel" concept vis-a-vis Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and "spin-offs" have a pedigree going back at least as far as the Desi-proposed "The Mertzes" series that failed to launch.

Still, what draws me to This is 40 is the "semi-", the open acknowledgment up front that we're not seeing "Knocked Up Again" ... even if I'd trust Judd Apatow not to offer up Kathryn Heigl waking up hung over, pregnant with Bobby Moynihan's baby this time.  Because it's not part of a three-movie package, something off formula, even if it's still semi-formulaic.  I don't know exactly how this movie connected to Knocked Up, and that has me intrigued.

Isn't it just a little bit more exciting when you don't know what's coming? When the connections aren't spelled out in big bold letters? Don't you just crave a movie that might be a sequel of sorts, but you won't know until you see it just how it fits together with other movies you know and love?

Yesssssssssssss .... (to be continued)

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