Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Total Recall

Title: Total Film
Cover date: July 2008

Mainstream movie magazines would seem to be under threat more than most from the rise of new media. There will always be a niche cinephile market for Sight & Sound, and the audience for the genre titles such as SFX and Starburst isn’t going to disappear. But considering that the likes of Empire and Total Film are propped up by big companies advertising big films, their position looks precarious; not only does every publication that covers anything to do with culture – newspapers, celebrity gossip mags, teen mags et al – carry features on, reviews of and ads for movies, but these days advertisers can easily target their marketing straight at people’s desktops and inboxes.

And yet. Empire can confidently say that it was not one of the primary reasons for EMAP to get the hell out of the consumer magazine industry, with a consistent circulation nudging 190,000 and a well-run, successful website. Its less well funded rival Total Film is also in reasonable health with a sturdy ABC figure of around 86,000. Advertisers, even with all the fancy modern marketing tools available to them, cannot pass up the opportunity to target those moviegoers who are eager enough to buy a monthly magazine.

There’s a tricky line to walk for such magazines between PR puff and genuine editorial content. Virtually everything in the mag, from the front cover to the soundtrack reviews, is effectively promoting something the readers can buy, and it’s the magazine’s job – its responsibility, even – to impart objective unbiased information, rather than just parrot publicity guff to sell these products.

One way to make yourself appear independent and maverick and not just a PR tool for movie studios is to create a fucking cool-looking cover that takes the daring step of making your magazine’s name virtually invisible:

Doesn’t that look fucking cool? Wouldn’t you gasp and simper and flutter your eyelashes and rush to spend your money on it? I would. But I didn’t, because what was actually on the shelf was this:

Sadly, a cover so reminiscent of Spinal Tap’s Smell The Glove is never going to make the newsstand because it contravenes received wisdom – black is depressing, you need a load of coverlines, you have to see the name of the mag. The bag that obscures all that shiny goodness is crude and ill-judged. Besides the shouty coverlines, the ostensibly Joker-generated graffiti all over it seems inappropriate. Various incarnations of the Joker have been kind of zany and lightly anarchic, but it’s unlikely that The Dark Knight will take this route. It might also be prudent to take a slightly more sensitive approach to this Joker considering the actor who portrays him is dead.

On the contents page we find the first example of Total Film’s unique selling point, the Predicted Interest Curve. For reviews of the bigger films, TF produces a graph indicating which it thinks are the best bits of the film and why – a neat way of summarising a review and getting some pithy humour in the mag. Here it prints a Predicted Interest Curve for the mag itself, which is a little self-congratulatory, not to mention pointless seeing as the staff presumably think most issues are pretty interesting. But this is a lucid contents page, with another pretty cool-looking Batman picture and a box pointing you to the reviews. It’s followed by a monthly planner including film and DVD release dates, plus some nice movie gags to make readers feel included and knowledgeable. (“24 June: New Jersey was founded today in 1664. Celebrate by going there. Don’t forget to visit the Quickstop. We assure you they’re open.”)

Page 12 I never cease to be amazed by the inanity of movie mag letters pages, with their standard “OMG your mag is totally better than that other movie mag!” and “My friends say [cult movie X] is stupid. Whereas in fact they are the ones that are the stupid ones and I am cool!” missives. I can’t really remember how we used to get through our lives without email but I’d happily see it banned to stop people sending fatuous messages to magazines. Elsewhere on this spread (yes, the asinine reader wibbling requires two pages) TF eschews an editor’s letter, preferring to relate office chitchat. I’ve railed against journalistic zaniness before, but I don’t mind this – even if it’s not funny, the point is to show that the staff are really into movies and make the reader feel part of a club.

Page 14 Buzz is the mag’s opening section, featuring set reports and news of upcoming releases. They go big on a preview of the next Narnia film, Voyage Of The Dawn Treader, which isn’t due for release until 2010, and there’s a substantial story on Quentin O’Shoelace or whatever it’s called, including interviews with Daniel Craig and Marc Forster. In fact there are a fair few interviews scattered through this ostensible news section – decent subjects too: Frank Darabont, Jack Nicholson, Jack Black – and just as well, because otherwise this is just stuff anyone could read anywhere, and probably did several months ago. Hey! Hey, you there! Have you heard about that movie Pineapple Express?! Oh, you have? In February, when the trailer first appeared on the web? Oh.

Buzz is scattered with mildly interesting bits, like where to find the best shorts on the internet (although if you wanted to, you could find them using... the internet), and a handful of limp attempts at humour (an act-off between Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise! That might be funny or apropos if this was 1993). The interviews and a handful of pictures just about legitimise the section’s existence, but it’s close. Actually the six-page report from Cannes is OK, but unfortunately there isn’t a Cannes every month.

Page 48 Here’s a question that’s already a hoary old standard: in an age when you can instantly check out what hundreds of Amazon reviewers and IMDb commenters think about a movie, do we really need professional critics? Yes, we do. Of course we do. Who wants to wade through 400 pages of LULZ and ZOMG when you can get properly written (and properly edited) opinions from people who know who they’re talking about? And movie magazines in particular need authoritative, entertaining reviews to keep people coming back. Any mag can print news and features of a reasonable standard, but you get to know the reviewers whose opinions you trust, your personal like-minded critics who can helpfully guide you towards the films you want to spend your money on.

I can’t get on with Screen, Total Film’s cinema reviews section. There are a couple of things to admire, such as their choice to go big on films that need championing such as The Visitor and The Mist, and those Predicted Interest Curves do provide a stamp of individuality, but overall it’s amateurish and unbalanced. It’s normal to select a handful of big or important films to focus on – 25 reviews of the same length would be monotonous – but 650 words is far too long for a movie review, unless the writer is a top-class wordsmith. In the hands of Total Film’s moderately talented staff, that much space encourages padding, inelegance and dullness.

Style-wise, TF’s over-reliance on the ellipsis drives me nuts. There’s nothing wrong with an occasional usage, but the review of Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull contains five ellipses, not counting the one used legitimately to truncate that unwieldy title. In fact, they annoy me so much, I’m going to quote them.

Before Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade there was no Matrix, no X-Men, no Spider-Man...

The teenage targets of summer blockbusters today weren’t even born when Harrison Ford last donned the fedora...

Story, then... the part-time professor makes his comeback

[Indy uses] whip and wit to dodge the baddies with a sprightliness that belies his age...

Shia and Hal head off to Peru to embark on a slow bout of tomb raiding...

Dot dot fricking DOT! Every single one of those sentences would be improved with judicious use of a full stop. This is sloppy, callow writing and it damages the credibility of the reviews.

The amount of three-star reviews suggests bet-hedging and fear of advertiser disapproval, rather than editorial conviction, and I especially dislike the “If you like this movie, you’ll like these movies” boxes on the long-form reviews, with movies evidently chosen specifically for the superficiality of their resemblance to the reviewed movie. If you like The Visitor, you’ll like Green Card, because they’re both about immigration? Are you kidding me?

Page 66 The features section is perhaps the trickiest in which to maintain the balance between editorial and promotional material. It’s only natural that the features should focus on current films – the readers want to know about them and the advertisers want the readers to know about them – but does the mag have the courage to deviate from the accepted norms, to throw in a surprise here and there, to introduce its readers to something that might enrich their cinematic life?

The closest Total Film comes is a brief feature about King Of Kong, the little-publicised but well reviewed documentary about record-breaking Donkey Kong players. The lead feature about The Dark Knight, meanwhile, chooses to tell the story of the making of the film entirely in quotes from the personnel involved. I don’t expect hyper-critical analysis, but is Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Gary Oldman or producer Emma Thomas going to tell us anything except how amazing and heartfelt and complex and important and amazing the film is? They also continue the annoying motif of having “the Joker” scribble all over the feature, although this conceit justifies its existence when it obliterates every word of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s contribution to the piece, presumably because it was too boring for publication.

The irritating ellipses are largely confined to the reviews, mercifully, but I can’t let a couple of egregious mistakes in this feature go unmentioned. It misspells “skilfully” as “skillfully” (I could be generous and assume they consciously chose the US spelling, but this is a British publication that uses no other American spellings – and besides, it suggests the careless application of a spellchecker) and compounds the error by circling the word in big red Joker pen. Even more heinously, it uses the construction “would of”! How can a professional journalist allow that into a magazine? And it’s not as if the piece is from an inexperienced junior staffer – it is written by editor Nev Pierce, who should hang his head. Hang your head, Pierce!

The section also contains a much-needed puff piece about the underexposed American actor Angelina Jolie and some tedious blather about movie-based amusement-park rides, which frankly doesn’t belong in a movie mag and also commits the unforgivable crime of using black text on a mid-blue background, which is impossible to read. Next is a special feature on how Hollywood is supposedly embracing TV these days, which is a pretty tenuous way to link a story about the new X-Files movie, a (boring) interview with the stars of Get Smart, a few pictures of people who have recently “graduated” from TV to movies (Tina Fey, Michael Cera, um, someone named Emmanuelle Chriqui apparently) and an interview with Ben Stiller, who used to be on TV you know. The X-Files feature is particularly flannelly and craven, to the extent that it uses the badly-Photoshopped image from the goddamn poster as its opening picture:

The final feature, TF Flashback, provides a good opportunity to include a more esoteric or obscure subject. This issue wastes this opportunity spectacularly, with a sniggering schoolboyish retrospective of the life and times of Mr Charlie Sheen. A subject matter which, as well as being distasteful (the feature is sympathetic despite his history of deplorable behaviour, concluding that he is “a born survivor” and still a success), is already well publicised, thanks.

Page 127 Lounge, Total Film’s home entertainment review section, is tighter than Screen, with pithier, more to-the-point reviews of DVDs, soundtracks, books and games. (Editor Pierce loses marks again, though, for his rambling review of The Orphanage, droning on about biological imperatives for a full third of the allocated space in the mistaken belief that we’re interested in his opinions on the matter.) I’m pleased to see that it includes games, which form a large part of people’s home entertainment, and the DVD reviews highlight classics such as Picnic At Hanging Rock rather than just new titles. This section also has Instant Expert, a beginner’s guide to a period or genre, which is a nice idea and well executed. Granting this more prominence would give TF more credibility.

The issue ends with four pages of quiz and TF ❤, a quirky celebration of an underrated character. The quiz is pretty testing (not least the Spot The Difference, which I swear is two identical stills from Gone Baby Gone) and provides considerable entertainment for movie obsessives, while TF ❤ is a knowledgeable and slick way to close the mag.

Bonus The supplement crassly called Sex & Spandex: A Celebration Of Comic Book Heroines On Screen turns out to be the best thing about this issue. Rather than the leering, adolescent sub-porn the title suggests, this is an erudite and analytical look at female characters in comic book adaptations, with contributions from Mark Millar, Frank Miller, Alan Moore and psychologist Rachel Andrew. It includes upcoming films such as Watchmen and GI Joe and it doesn’t stick to the obvious, with a piece on Edie Stall in David Cronenberg’s superlative adaptation of A History Of Violence. This won’t tell serious comic book fans anything they don’t know, but I found it a surprisingly good read.

Reading Total Film is a frustrating experience. It certainly feels like it’s put together by enthusiasts who care about movies, and there are one or two examples of knowledgeable, impassioned writing here. But the cinema reviews are weak and often overwordy, while the features section lacks personality and is just too promotional. The only features I really enjoyed were the King Of Kong one and the Ben Stiller interview. While the feature on The Dark Knight contained a fair amount of information and insight from the key people involved, it could have appeared in almost any publication. There was nothing to keep me coming back to TF every month.

Being the less successful rival to the market leader in your sector should encourage innovation and irreverence. You’ve less to lose, so why not attempt to provide a genuine alternative to the frontrunner, which almost inevitably plays it safe? I thought I might find examples of this on Total Film’s website, but its blogs are simply run-of-the-mill reports and brief interviews likely to find their way into the mag at some point. They’re also infrequently posted; only one appeared between 25 May and 19 June, for example. Could the movie fans on the staff not bash out 250 words on any filmic subject that took their fancy every other day or so?

It may be that I’m asking for the impossible when I long for this type of mag. Every so often a film magazine comes along that does attempt to be witty and iconoclastic and satirical and it invariably fails. In the late 1990s EMAP’s superb Neon lasted a mere two years; Hotdog, which originated at I Feel Good, was bounced around from publisher to publisher for a while before it finally folded in 2006. But these days, when so much of the media we view is straight-up promotional, there must be room for some idiosyncratic comment, for deviation from the usual, for something to make us think, goddamnit. Total Film doesn’t appear to be able to provide this.

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