Monday Morning Critic – The Hunger Games? Give Me Battle Royale Instead! Plus A Look at Judd Apatow’s Declining Golden Touch

Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.

I was going to write on something about this weekend’s release of The Avengers, about whether or not watching a clip or so constitutes spoiling a film in any aspect, but that’s not really all that interesting to me. It’s what I call “typical web writer” shtick; it’s the kind of thing churned out by the barrelful of digital ink but doesn’t give any real insight into film. Not like my column does any of that, obviously, but I don’t pretend to do so either. The big story not getting nearly as much press as it should is the final touches on the decline of the golden touch of Judd Apatow. How do we know this?

A lackluster trailer for This is Forty and the lackluster box office debut of The Five Year Engagement, for starters.

The one meme that popped up during the brief span that the Apatow gang seemed to want to rule the comedy world was that Apatow had a good formula for keeping it cheap. When guys got too big and made too much money to appear in something he was connected with then he’d replace them with supporting actors, et al, as he had a stable of talented comedians waiting to come out. And for a while it seemed to play out accordingly.

Steve Carell proves capable of headlining a summer blockbuster only to be replaced by Seth Rogen, who in turn was replaced by Jason Segel and then Jonah Hill. But the years since the summer of Knocked Up and Superbad haven’t been so kind to that group of actors nor has it been as kind to Apatow as a writer, director or producer.

And it starts with the three actors who seemed poised to become stars out of the group: Segel, Rogen and Hill. Christopher Mintz-Plasse was hysterical as McLovin in Superbad but has basically ridden that role in nearly every film he’s done since. It probably doesn’t help that he comes off as a bit nebbish, for lack of a better word, but he has played variants on that part since. The rest of the Apatow gang has kind of popped up in supporting and minor roles but nothing serious.

Rogen, Hill and Segel were all established off the backs of bigger stars. Carell and Rudd were known quantities but the other three weren’t; in the process of establishing that little crew make two really funny actors get higher into the mainstream than they were at that point, but it hasn’t been smooth sailing. You could argue that people are just reaching that point of wanting a fresh face in comedy to replace them.

— Segel hasn’t really transitioned from full time film star yet, still on one a fairly successful television show (How I Met Your Mother), though, and outside of Carell is the guy with the most consistent career of that entire group. He’s not quite Will Ferrell in that he still needs a big, $150-200 million comedy hit … unfortunately it doesn’t look like that’ll be coming anytime soon, either.

— Rogen hasn’t quite starred in a film as popular commercially or critically as Knocked Up. The Green Hornet was somewhat successful but underperformed for what it was supposed to. He’s a funny guy and people like him but he’s starting to fall into more of being a great sidekick than a leading man. He got great reviews in 50/50 which allowed him to be funny but not have to be the focus of a film.

— Hill had a slight hit in Get Him to the Greek and a bit part in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, as well as an Oscar nomination for Moneyball and a solid turn in 21 Jump Street, but hasn’t had the sort of massive hit with him in a primary role that would establish him.

When you think about it the biggest hits coming from anyone in the Apatow gang have been with animated films. When you look at the sheer volume of animated hits these guys have had it’s astounding; but voice work doesn’t genuinely count as a hit-making or star-making performance; getting in front of the camera counts more than we think it does. It’s what did in Rick Astley; when people heard his voice it was incredible. When he turned out to be a skinny ginger … well … it would’ve been as if KISS came out with “Never Gonna Give You Up.”

This weekend’s big comedy release was The Five Year Engagement and I thought it was quite funny. You can read my review here. But the interesting thing about it is that it didn’t open nearly as strongly as Segel’s other films have in the past. Travis talked about it in a bit more depth here but an $11 million opening for an R-rated comedy isn’t quite a flop level film yet. But the problem is that R-rated comedies don’t tend to have staying power at the box office especially considering this is the start of the summer box office season with the Avengers coming out. This has all the potential of being swept out of theatres quickly once screens start becoming in demand for all the wide released films about to crash upon the box office.

An R-rated comedy has to really have tremendous word of mouth and have to find itself in weird circumstances to have staying power; that’s how Wedding Crashers ended up making a ton at the box office. And even that film got lucky in that it had a couple of weeks where there weren’t a handful of big films to take away screens. Apatow’s success as a producer hasn’t been really strong since Superbad, too, as Step Brothers barely crossed $100 million and no one remembers his attachment to Bridesmaids as a producer in the wake of all the “girl power” sentiment involved in that film. So far Wanderlust has yet to crack $20 million and Engagement might struggle to hit that mark as well.

This is Forty has a bit of a daunting task this winter. Coming out right before Christmas, when The Great Gatsby and Django Unchained will almost certainly pop a box office number of tremendous proportions with Les Miserables and a Hobbit film expected to take up a lot of space and box office coin as well, trying to find an audience will be tough. If it flops, and flops hard, it’ll be the final touch of a comedy run that was quite unprecedented in many ways. It’ll be the end of the Apatow gang as the kings of the box office when it comes to comedy.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

This Week’s DVD – Battle Royale

If you want to be a real geek you’d say The Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale the book. If you want to be a bit less geeky, you use the phrase “film” instead. Yeah, I know it’s a bit weak for an introduction but it was better than “There is something oddly erotic about Japanese school girls killing one another.” Thusly, this week’s DVD also doubles as one I’d been waiting to arrive on DVD for some time: Battle Royale.

It has a fairly simple premise. Forty ninth graders are taken from their classroom and put onto an island. They have three days to fight to the last man standing or else they all die. The film follows Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda) as they try to survive the carnage that surrounds them. As they see their classmates and friends devolve in fits of violence, they have only one goal: try to survive without becoming a killer.

Essentially the film is what would’ve happened if The Hunger Games had some bulls and had gone full R instead of a light, fluffy PG-13. Considering someone uses a decapitated head stuffed with a grenade as a weapon isn’t even the most shocking thing in the film and you’ve got something that’s so remarkably violent that even the most ardent action film buff is going to be taken aback. And to be honest even without all the violence it’s 100 times better than The Hunger Games if only for one thing: the setup.

Both have essentially the same setup in essence: the young are sacrificed in the name of peace by the old. What I found fascinating about Battle Royale, and what bugged me about The Hunger Games, is how they set up the children. What I enjoyed about Royale is that the film is essentially dumping the children into a setup and going “Have fun, kids, with the guns and the knives” for two hours, with the conclusion a happy one. There’s an entirely fresh dynamic about this; these are just kids who have no clue what’ll happen or why they are there given one way to survive. There’s a unique dynamic this creates; just a short while before this they were all friends and classmates, etc, and then all of a sudden they have to start killing one another.

Games has children training for the killing, etc, and it kind of killed it for me. It’s one thing to be dropped in and shown how to kill each other, but seeing essentially a handful of killers dropped into a battlefield with cannon fodder wasn’t nearly as engaging. I get the underdog aspect of it but the one thing Royale does better is that we don’t know if Nanahara and Noriko are going to survive. It’s the sort of plucky underdog formula that ruins most sports films, honestly.

Strongest recommendation.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club

The Avengers – The world’s threatened. Everyone in Marvel’s universe besides Spider-Man comes out to save it. He’s too busy inventing Facebook or something.

See It – This’ll probably be one of the biggest films of the year no matter what. And it might be good, too, as early buzz has it out to be quite solid at a minimum.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – A bunch of old retired English folks go to a hotel in India. Shenanigans with the dude from Slumdog happen. In limited release

Skip It – The ultimate in counter programming, it’s been bumped and rescheduled a whole bunch of times. That’s usually not good. This reeks of Dominion, the Exorcist prequel, that got dumped out the same weekend that the last Star Wars prequel was released. That film was fairly solid, though … this one doesn’t quite feel the same way.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .

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