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Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs and Blockbusters

HBO // Unrated // November 14, 2006
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted October 31, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Promising to be both an in-depth look at cinema's most famous hits and most infamous losers and a celebration of Variety's 100th anniversary, "Boffo! Tinseltown's Bombs & Blockbusters" winds up instead an instantly forgettable fluff piece with the complexity of an AFI countdown special.

The documentary, produced for HBO, was "suggested by" the book "Boffo! How I Learned To Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb," by Variety honcho Peter Bart; the film is credited as being written by both Bart and director Bill CouturiƩ, although instead of providing any real point of view with any actual script, all the two did here for such a credit is figure out how best to arrange the mountain of interviews without revealing too much that every single interview pretty much boils down to nothing more than: "well, you can't figure out what'll be a hit and what won't, so just try your best."

And so we get a random assortment of interviews, film clips, and the occasional classic Variety headline, tossed together in what's supposed to be a group of themes but fails to hold together as well as it would like. The main problem is that we fly through so many movies, so quickly and so lightly, that we never get a sense of any of them. "Jaws" gets the most play, as it's the film "Boffo!" credits for beginning the studios' blockbuster mentality (and it explains why only a few movies from before 1975 are discussed). What do we get in our investigation of "Jaws?" A couple clips of folks talking about how the shark not working forced Spielberg to make a scarier picture; shots of Richard Dreyfuss telling the exact same "the shark isn't working, the shark isn't working" story he's told fifty times before; and a notice or two about its box office take.

The film tells us that the success of "Jaws" changed Hollywood, yet fails to bother effectively following up on that concept. (Heck, the movie barely even registers the "Star Wars" series.) And so we jump to a few shots of "Out of Africa," so Sydney Pollack can talk about his movie for maybe a minute, or "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," so people can talk about how Hollywood likes to make sequels, and then off to "Titanic," the hit of hits, which gets a measly ninety seconds, tops. This is the film that not only broke box office records worldwide and has become simply untouchable on the domestic box office level, but also found Variety running a series of articles following its troubled production and impending failure. Why, then, do we get so little on this movie? Why not interview journalists who predicted its early demise? Why not put Bart on camera to talk about the magazine's "Titanic Watch" feature? Why not discuss the film's continuing impact?

Apparently all of this gets overlooked so we can instead squeeze in some interviews about how the biggest hits are also the most unexpected - and here's where I have to flat-out disagree with what "Boffo!" tries to tell us. We're supposed to believe that nobody thought "Forrest Gump" and "Braveheart" would be popular, never mind that they featured two of the world's biggest stars in two reasonably safe storylines (a syrupy melodrama and an epic action-adventure). Then the film moves on to confuse awards with box office take as it interviews Charlize Theron about her experiences making "Monster" (which was not a box office hit and only a modest success on home video, despite the Oscar win); the idea of actresses "ugly-ing up" for a movie in order to take home a handful of trophies is presented as a far riskier venture than it truly is.

As much as "Boffo!" bungles the hits, it's even worse with the flops. A string of disasters sail by with almost complete apathy - "Howard the Duck" gets a whopping thirty seconds of talk time - and there's no point to any of it. The celebrity patter that revealed how hits are unexpected does little to attempt to reveal the same about flops. We get people telling us that a flop can hurt your career, at least for a while, and the sad news is, that's the best this movie can do.

There are a few rare moments of clarity and cleverness. George Clooney, always compelling, gives some breezy talk about his experiences following "Batman & Robin;" he also chats about how doing a big hit opens up chances to do smaller, more personal fare (it's a frequent but off-the-point theme in this movie, but Clooney makes it worth the detour). Morgan Freeman is quite open about "Bonfire of the Vanities," his guarded comments on how people on the set knew the film was in danger show just where this picture could have gone with more interviews like this.

The rest, however, is slight, shallow, and clumsy. CouturiƩ has bungled an attempt to really get to the heart of Hollywood today as seen through the eyes of the industry's top magazine, as he is instead all too distracted by the idea of making his guests look good and of getting to show all those clips from all those movies. "Boffo!" tells us nothing we didn't know, and it does so in a shoddy, entirely forgettable manner.



The film clips obviously vary in quality, while the interviews themselves are clear enough. The biggest problem is the non-anamorphic presentation of the 1.78:1 widescreen image; this is a 2006 production made for a cable network that broadcasts in HD. Anamorphic should have been a no-brainer.

Also of note: The film properly letterboxes any movie clip shot in anything wider than 1.78:1, in order to maintain correct ratios for all the modern hits. Yet anything shot in less than 1.78:1 is modified to fit the widescreen image. Blah.


The Dolby stereo mix is unimpressive but problem-free. A Spanish stereo track is also included, which consists of a handful of performers reading translations over the original soundtrack, which can still be heard. No subtitles are offered.



Final Thoughts

"Boffo!" is a big, empty disappointment of a documentary. Movie buffs will already know all the stories found within, while others will find it too rambling and dull. A good rule of thumb: if you can't even make high-as-a-kite producer Robert Evans look interesting, you've got yourself a dud. Skip It.
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