Summer School – Part I


With the release of the traditional Nobody Cares Because It’s Labor Day Dud to theaters, the 2013 Summer Movie season comes to a close. We now enter Fall, wherein an initial stream of whatever low-end genre crud that the studios assumed couldn’t survive in the Summer (next week brings us that third “Riddick” movie nobody asked for… except Vin Diesel who allegedly “forced” Universal to make it in order to keep coming back for “Fast” sequels) will gradually transition into a cluster of Prestige Pictures making their obligatory Oscar qualifying runs.

I find myself in the unusual (for me) position of actually being glad to be rid of Silly Season. I’ve been fortunate to have spent most of my relatively short career as a professional critic in an era wherein the “blockbuster scene” transitioned from being the exclusive home of interchangeable steroid-freaks cracking catchphrases while outrunning fireballs and not playing by the rules to a place where filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson and Joss Whedon could command millions to bring 8 year-old Bob’s wildest dreams to life; so the experience of having had enough rides on the merry go-round is an odd one for me. Either this year’s crop of obligatory biggies were particularly lukewarm, or I’m getting old. You’ll understand if I prefer to blame the movies.

That’s not to say that it was a bad year, but compared to others in recent memory it felt a lot more like work than I prefer work to feel. There were plenty of good movies, to be sure, but you needed to look in the margins or between the cracks; and since it’s the big attention-getters that pay the bills, focusing on the positive wasn’t exactly an option. Still, if it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable crop, at least it was an interesting one where even the failures had something to teach us. For example…

Audiences may finally be sick of Johnny Depp.

Okay, that’s not really fair. The mass-rejection of “Dark Shadows,” followed by the spectacular crash and burn of The Lone Ranger – made all the more spectacular in that everyone seemed to see it coming yet was powerless to stop it – were the breaking-point for a sense that’s been building since a few weeks after the third Pirates movie that Depp’s moment as the mass-market action/comedy figurehead of choice was soon to pass. His boxoffice will likely bounce back with Alice in Wonderland II and Pirates 5, but he’s tarnished the hell out of his brand with the film-press tastemakers and cinephiles who used to be his biggest champions.

That’s not good news for when his blockbuster clout really does dry up and serious projects are wary of casting him for fear of residual Tonto jokes tainting their prospects. Remember: It wasn’t that long ago that Nicholas Cage was a critical-darling and an Academy Award winner; and the “boyishly-handsome brooder” parts that used to be his bread and butter have found new standard-bearers in guys like Ryan Gosling, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Paul Dano.

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Audiences are NOT sick of Iron Man, The Avengers or Robert Downey Jr.

Of all the ways Marvel Studios’ grand experiment to recreate in film the vaunted Shared Universe of comics could’ve gone wrong, the post-Avengers “Now What?” might’ve been the most precarious. Even if audiences did warm to the individual adventures of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk (which they did) and even if they then subsequently turned out in record numbers for the payoff of four separate series coming together as The Avengers (ditto) …there was always one last danger: Once mainstream moviegoers had seen the Main Event, would they still care enough to follow the component heroes back to their own smaller-scale solo series?

If Iron Man 3 is any indication, it looks like they don’t have to worry. Not only is it a terrific movie (the best of its own trilogy by far) in its own right, it was a major hit with audiences. Marvel/Disney had been downplaying expectations, but a hit is a hit. It’s hard to say what kind of alchemy this studio is working with to keep having these things work out (Despite what many fans would like to believe, it’s not simply a matter of “sticking to the comics”), but it looks like the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be with us for awhile yet.

Sometimes you just have to let Michael Bay be Michael Bay.

Psychoanalyzing modern Hollywood’s preeminent bad taste auteur has been a movie journo pastime since the moment he first brought his aggressively-stylized signature to screens. Right-wing military fetishist? Self-satirist playing a long con? Unaware savant? Puckish provocateur? But for too long the only material said analysis had to draw from was a trilogy of awful Transformers films that Bay was uniquely ill-suited to making in the first place and clearly has never been all that invested in. Love or hate what he does, Michael Bay is at his most interesting when he’s following his heart – or whatever appendage is in charge.

Pain & Gain, was the first real Michael Bay movie in almost a decade, and it was worth the wait. Freed from both the strictures of Transformers’ PG-13 rating and toy-salesman requirements and the misguided stabs at dramatic legitimacy that doomed Pearl Harbor and The Island; this small-scale, character-centric black comedy is probably the best thing he’s ever made and feels as close to personal as he’s yet been willing to get. In particular, it feels like he identifies with Tony Shaloub’s uncouth robbery-victim – the guy whose drive and ambition have made him rich… but also make him so unlikable that his near-muderers almost get away with it because no one cares enough to want to help him.

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The United States no longer has the last word.

Love it or leave it, Hollywood is still where the biggest, most universally-appealing movies in the world get made. There are exceptions, certainly, but on the whole there’s no bigger force for good or ill in global popular culture. And because since its inception Hollywood’s primary revenue stream came from U.S. audiences, said U.S. audiences had de-facto veto power of what did and didn’t “matter” worldwide. Oh, sure, Eastern Europe or Asia or Africa can have whatever tastes they wanted; but unless Americans shared that taste good luck seeing it get the glossy Hollywood treatment.

That this scenario would change has always been an inevitability of globalism, but this was the year we saw the first real signs that the rulebook is being rewritten in front of us. Earlier in the year the throwaway trifle Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters made minor headlines when it bombed stateside but cruised into a $200 Million international hit thanks to big turnouts in Russia and Latin America. A sequel is now planned.

But the real eyebrow-raiser has been Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a much-hyped actioner that opened soft in America but has done gangbusters business elsewhere – most prominently in mainland China, which Hollywood currently views as a market soon to equal or even surpass the spending-power of the U.S.

The optics of this become even more interesting when one considers that Rim is already more than a little Post-American in its basic makeup: It’s an action-fantasy for the age of globalism, in which a multinational coalition unites under a banner of common cause. It’s cast is international, it’s sensibilities are all about One World cooperative spirit. The central conceit: Giant battle-robots needed to save the world literally run on the The Power of Teamwork. It walks a deft tightrope between utilizing archetypal characters while effortlessly breaking Hollywood rules about the function of women and people of color in “big” movies.

Timing is still everything.

Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are both working from the same pitch, and it’s a good one: Die Hard in The White House. Down would seem to have the edge: A bigger-name director, a hotter cast, an obviously higher budget and, oh yeah, it was also a way better, smarter, funnier movie that even managed to have a thing or two on its mind politically. But whereas the expensive Down had a disappointingly average debut at the boxoffice, the low-budget Olympus opened earlier in the year and did tidy business for itself. Lesson learned: Get there first.

NEXT WEEK: More Summer School.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet. Recently, he wrote a book.

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.