Shared theme: Volcanoes go boom
Released within: About three months -- "Dante's Peak" bowed on February 7th, 1997 and "Volcano" on April 25th, 1997
Different approaches: "Dante's Peak" and "Volcano" took approaches as different as day and ash cloud blocking out the sun so it appeared to be night. "Dante's Peak" followed the small town disaster model, with the movie taking place in a tiny town in Washington state, while "Volcano" goes big, adopting the more classic disaster movie mode about a large city falllng to ruin, in this case, modern day Los Angeles. Even the nature of the threat is very different -- in "Dante's Peak" people are wildly concerned by the threat of falling ash, which is beautifully rendered by hundreds of visual effects technicians as a roiling smoke cloud of death, while in "Volcano" everyone has to watch out for (in the words of Dr. Evil) "liquid hot magma," that runs through the streets and slides through the city's limited subway system like a really hot version of "The Blob." Both starred grumpy white men, with "Dante's Peak" anchored by Pierce Brosnan (as a scientist whose partner in science -- and life -- is killed by falling volcano debris in the opening prologue) and Tommy Lee Jones heading up "Volcano."
Which was more successful? "Dante's Peak" ended up making more money, earning $67 million domestically (against a budget that exceeded $100), while "Volcano" made just $40 million on a $90 million budget. Neither film was what you would describe as traditionally successful, and especially after their heated (pun very much intended) rivalry, you'd think the box office haul would have been a little greater.
Which was better? Hands down, "Volcano" is the superior movie. It's slyly subversive, acting as a knowing, funny critique of Los Angeles culture, while also delivering the goods in terms of big, dumb action movie fun (it was co-written by "Shattered Glass" director Billy Ray). And quite frankly its set pieces are better, including the one where John Carroll Lynch saves someone from a trapped subway car by literally melting into the lava. Intense shit. And while "Dante's Peak" certainly has its moments, including a boiling lake of acid, it's much more traditional and dull and that giant ash cloud is kind of lame.
"Dangerous Liaisons" vs "Valmont"
Shared Theme: Adaptations of 18th Century French novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos. Though technically, ‘Liaisons’ is based on the Christopher Hampton play which is itself based on the novel.
Released within: One year of each other -- December 1988/November 1989
Different approaches: In many of the instances we’re discussing, the two films manage to be substantially different from one another, or at least appeared to do so in the popular imagination, as to make direct comparison difficult. But in the case of Stephen Frears’ Oscar-winning “Dangerous Liaisons” vs Milos Forman’s “Valmont” the latter film really feels in every way like a paler imitation of the former, no matter how unfair that assessment might be to the relative timeframes of development and shooting. It feels almost like an echo in which the powerhouse performances of the first are replaced by slightly more colorless versions -- and this despite the substantially larger budget of "Valmont." So instead of John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman, we get the one-rung lower (at the time) Colin Firth, Annette Bening, Meg Tilly and Fairuza Balk in the corresponding roles. But the real differentiator is in the script, with Hampton adapting his own play to great effect for the Frears film, preserving the claustrophobic drawing-room dynamics, while in “Valmont” the larger canvas actually feels like it works a little against the film, denying us the real sense of the pressure-cooker atmosphere of deceit and manipulation that ‘Liaisons’ evoked so masterfully, and leaving us with a more superficial, lighter comedy with fewer intriguing, dark undertows.
Which was more successful? “Dangerous Liaisons.” Nominated for 7 Oscars and winner of 3 (‘Valmont’ did manage a costume design nomination the following year), the film was also a modest financial success, making $34m off its titchy $14m budget. “Valmont” has an estimated $33m budget but according to Box Office Mojo, only made a paltry $1.13m.
Which was better? Yup, “Dangerous Liaisons” is better for our money, despite the contrarian impulse to champion the lesser-known film as a neglected gem. Still “Valmont” is pretty good, even if it does feel much more disposable by comparison. Truth be told, had ‘Liaisons’ not existed we might consider it the definitive telling of this story, but that’s the rub, right there. Comparisons with other versions of the same story are inevitable, especially when the release dates are close, and “Valmont” just doesn’t measure up to its bolder, richer predecessor.
"Super" vs. "Kick-Ass"
Shared theme: You can become a superhero... in real life!
Released within: About a year of each other, with "Kick-Ass" debuting on March 25th, 2010 and "Super" coming out April 1st, 2011 (it premiered at TIFF in September 2010).
Different approaches: Well, for one, "Kick-Ass" is actually based on a comic book (by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.), instead of the collected fantasies of its filmmakers, and has protagonists who are mostly high-school kids. (In "Super" all the characters are, for lack of a better word, adults.) "Kick-Ass" also seems keenly interested in deconstructing the tropes of the modern day comic-book movie, which at that point was reaching critical mass, with an emphasis on jazzy pop-art framing and transitions and a comic book color palette. However things that comic book movies usually shy away from, including the implications of actual violence and sexual overtones, are lovingly embraced by both. It's just that while "Kick-Ass" seems like a knowing send-up, James Gunn's "Super" feels like something altogether different -- and entirely more perverse. Millar acknowledged that Gunn was in production on "Super" at the same time as "Kick-Ass," defending it from allegations of plagiarism and even screening the film at a comic book-themed film festival in London. Gunn responded around the time of the film's release by saying, "It sucks on the one hand and then on the other hand, who gives a shit? There are 4,000 bank heist movies."
Which was more successful? "Kick-Ass," exponentially so, with a domestic gross of around $50 million and an international haul of around the same (now you know why they made a sequel). "Super," on the other hand, grossed little more than $300,000. Ouch.
Which was better? Unquestionably, "Kick-Ass." "Super" is like a hundred pounds of shit in a ten pound bag: director Gunn throws everything he can into this movie and prays that some of it will work (including but not limited to: angelic visions, a Christian superhero, Japanese anime porno tentacles, extreme violence, animated interludes and Kevin Bacon). But nothing ever really sticks. "Kick-Ass" has its problems (the point-of-view gets lost almost completely after Nic Cage and Chloe Moretz's characters are introduced), but it also has some genuinely dazzling set pieces and is much funnier and more charming. Both films are occasionally undermined by their tiny budgets, with "Kick-Ass" being the least New York City-looking movie ever shot in Toronto (totally undermining its "hey, this is the real world!" conceit) but the even uglier "Super" looks often like it was made for less than what it cost to buy your lunch.
"The Illusionist" vs."The Prestige"
Shared theme: Victorian-era magicians are up to deadly tricks, often while wearing extravagant hats
Released within: One month of each other -- September & October 2006
Different approaches: "The Illusionist" takes place largely in Vienna, and follows a lowly magician (Edward Norton) who falls in love with a noble woman (Jessica Biel)... with deadly consequences. It weaves in historical details and appropriates a certain "old timey" look, courtesy of can't-help-himself director Neil Burger, complete with a persistently washed out sepia tone, a baroque score by Philip Glass, and a whole bunch of irises. Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige," on the other hand, takes place largely in Victorian England (with a section taking place in America) and also utilizes historical details and characters, with defamed inventor Nikola Tesla (David Bowie!) providing a pivotal role. And while both films are deeply human tales that just happened to be framed by the abracadabra world of magic, "The Illusionist" focuses on a love affair while "The Prestige" is primarily concerned with the rivalry between two dueling magicians (played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman). "The Illusionist" is also primarily concerned with magic that could be performed on the stage, while "The Prestige" eventually veers into more supernatural territory.
Which was more successful? Domestically, "The Prestige" only conjured $53 million, a shockingly low number, considering what Nolan was able to wrangle with his three Batman movies (and the even knottier "Inception"). Still, it did better than "The Illusionist," which made $39 million.
Which was better? While "The Illusionist" is not without its charms, particularly when it comes to Paul Giamatti's constantly foiled constable, "The Prestige" is the clear victor - more thematically, technically, and emotionally complex; a magic trick that you haven't quite figured out until mere moments before the credits roll. (And then you want to watch it all over again.) Nolan was working at the top of his game and "The Prestige" is an utterly fearless, outre work that ranks amongst his very best. It's layered with fine performances (from Bale, Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Caine and Rebecca Hall), lots of "magic wisdom," and deep melancholy. It's also gorgeous-looking, and really there's something about its spirit that makes "The Illusionist" feel like a very safe pop record, while "The Prestige" is totally punk.
"The Girl" vs. "Hitchcock"
Shared theme: Academy Award-winning director Alfred Hitchcock was kind of a creep
Released within: A month of each other ("The Girl" aired on HBO in October, "Hitchcock" debuted the following month)
Different approaches: "The Girl" is glum, glum, glum. It portrays Hitchcock's relationship with Tippi Hedren (Sienna Miller) on the set of "The Birds" as a form of emotional terrorism, with Hitchcock cruelly directing her and (later) insisting she perform sexual favors on him. The director's playfulness, both personally and professionally, is nowhere to be found. Instead, he's characterized as a singularly morbid, sexually depraved goblin (Toby Jones does this kind of thing very well). The movie, too, shares nothing with the famous director it's based on. Julian Jarrold, who directed part of the amazing "Red Riding" trilogy, brings zero zippiness to the piece and instead it just hangs there, oppressive and grey, like some huge storm cloud. "Hitchcock," on the other hand, is effervescent to a fault. It concerns the director (here played by Anthony Hopkins, relishing every moment in his make-up and fat suit) and his attempts to get his low-budget horror classic "Psycho" made. He suspects his wife, Alma (Helen Mirren) is having an affair with a cheeky novelist (Danny Huston), and he is aided in his scheming by Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), the notorious serial killer that "Psycho" was based upon. It's in this dreamy landscape that director Sascha Gervasi luxuriates in all things Hitchcock, appropriating many of the director's signature shots and stylistic proclivities in a telling a tale that ultimately isn't about anything more than the inner workings of a very difficult marriage.
Which was more successful? While well-reviewed by most critics, "The Girl" didn't break any numbers for HBO (the recent Steven Soderbergh-directed "Behind the Candelabra" did). "Hitchcock" did pretty pitifully too: it made just over $6 million in its limited run this past fall, and failed to secure any major Academy Award nominations (the fact that Mirren was overlooked is criminal).
Which was better? It depends on what you were looking for, we suppose. If you wanted to see one of the greatest directors of all time vilified based on little more than hearsay from an actress whose career never reached the peaks again after working with Hitchcock (she would star in one more movie for him, then virtually disappear), then "The Girl" is for you. Personally, we found it too dour and lacking in anything truly insightful about the man. Sure, he could have been an A-class creep but there was also a jovial, incandescent side to him that rendered him a magnetic personality on and off the set. "Hitchcock," for all its flaws (and there are many), at least tries to get at that part of the man's essence, that "The Girl" ignored, And it is directed beautifully on the cheap, with a rousing score by Hitchcock super-fan Danny Elfman, who also provided the rejiggered score for Gus van Sant's "Psycho" remake.
"Robin Hood" vs "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves"
Shared Theme: Duh, the Robin Hood legend of not-so-Merrie Olde England
Released within: One month of each other -- May/June 1991
Different approaches: Long before Russell Crowe’s take (which we just this second remembered exists, having forgotten about it literally the moment we stepped out of the theater) two Robins Hood battled it out for your 1991 dollar -- Kevin Reynolds’ starry, overlong, self-serious ‘Prince of Thieves,’ starring Kevin Costner and the not-so starry, not-so-overlong but similarly self-serious “Robin Hood” starring Patrick Bergin. Why it apparently occurred to two separate production houses simultaneously that what the world needed was a gritty, mucky reimagining of the beloved Robin Hood story (Errol Flynn’s cheery technicolor version is still miles better than either of these two, or the Ridley Scott one), is anyone’s guess, but what they hell, both threw their feather-bedecked caps in the ring. The lower budgeted ‘Hood’ directed by John Irvin (who also directed the original Brit TV version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” sidenote fans) made some claims to greater historical accuracy, notably changing the villain from The Sheriff of Nottingham to some duke or lord played by Jurgen Prochnow, and didn’t do much in the way of reclaiming Uma Thurman’s Maid Marian from being anything more than a milky-skinned damsel in need of rescue. ‘Thieves,’ by contrast, packs its supporting cast with ringers, from Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio’s spunky Maid Marian, to Morgan Freeman’s Azeem, Christian Slater’s Will Scarlett and, best of all, Alan Rickman’s snarly anti-Christmas Sheriff. Both films, however suffer from rather lumpen leads, with ‘Hood’‘s Patrick Bergin all frowny mustachioed seriousness, and Costner’s version a bit nimbler, but not a whole lot more appealing.
Which was more successful? “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” by a country mile. raking in just shy of $400m worldwide despite being technically the second to screens, it was proof positive of the star power of Kevin Costner at the time that everyone flocked to a film that was so stodgily told. The Bergin ‘Hood,’ by contrast, all but disappeared to the point that it’s not even a popular enough search result for “Robin Hood” on IMDB to get into the top ten title matches.
Which was better? Oh, probably Kevin Reynolds’ ‘Thieves’ for its nice supporting turns and at least quasi-interesting egalitarian agenda (not just with Marian, but Freeman’s positive Moorish character too), but then again, the Irvin/Bergin version didn’t inflict a turgid yodelly dirge from Bryan Adams on the planet for which we wish a pox on the whole production. So yeah, screw ‘em both and watch 1938’s ludicrously entertaining “The Adventures of Robin Hood” instead.
And there are quite a few more instances of this phenomenon coming down the pike, though it wouldn't be fair to pass judgment too far in advance: Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” is due out around this time next year but producer Neal Moritz has apparently got a rival “Sleeping Beauty” project developing too, albeit in a more comedic vein (which all feels very ‘Huntsman’ vs “Mirror Mirror” to us). Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s Whitey Bulger project faces competition in the form of “Black Mass” to which Johnny Depp was, then wasn’t and now maybe is again attached; Lady Di does a Hitchcock and gets her very own dueling biopics with the forthcoming “Diana” with Naomi Watts, and a more scurrilous take based on the book “Diana: Closely Guarded Secret” also supposedly gestating, though word’s gone a bit quiet on that after a flurry of initial casting rumors (Carey Mulligan, Charlize Theron, Ewan MacGregor all mooted at one point or another -- not all, presumably, for the title role); the storied and troubled production of Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” got an unexpected rival when previous star Johnny Depp abandoned ship to mount his own “Don Quixote” but Gilliam’s has been postponed again, in a devastatingly surprising surprise, and we haven’t heard much since then of Depp’s either, so who knows?
Additionally, we'll soon be seeing a second Linda Lovelace project after Amanda Seyfried's turn in "Lovelace" (our review here) when Malin Akerman deep throats "Inferno: The Linda Lovelace Story," and the many Jeff Buckley projects that were at one time mooted will boil down to two, the already released "Greetings from Tim Buckley" and the developing, officially sanctioned "Mystery White Boy." The Hollywood stand-off phenomenon is not going away any time soon. -- Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor