Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Summer Catch-Up; or, Hollywood Shoots the Hostage

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 23, 2006

Well, I see that the Weinsteins have finally taken my advice and moved Pulse (starring the lovely and talented Kristen Bell) from the middle of summer to early fall (specifically Sept. 8). This may be the best thing for the movie, as horror films generally don’t play well in summer (just look at last year’s lineup of High Tension, Dark Water, Land of the Dead and The Devil’s Rejects), but it might have been nice if they’d picked a weekend that wasn’t so crowded already. With 4 other major films currently scheduled to open that day, it might be tough going. But at least it won’t be competing with Pirates of the Caribbean or Superman Returns. Not to mention Little Man – seriously, anyone who actually pays to see that movie deserves to be shot in the face by Dick Cheney. I’m sure it’s going to be huge. God help us all.

I’m also happy to see the Weinsteins are finally releasing Feast, the Project Greenlight horror film that’s been gathering dust on their shelf for a year now. Not so thrilled that it will be coming out in limited release before hitting DVD a month later. I want to see this thing on the big screen! I know there are lots of people out there who watched the show that are dying to see it – so what’s the problem, exactly? For such supposedly savvy businessmen, sometimes I think the Weinstein boys are afraid of making money. Gulager! Gulager!

Anyway… so last weekend I was watching Speed. I love Speed, and I don’t really care what anyone says about it. Yeah, the sequel sucked, but the original still holds up as an awesome popcorn movie. It’s the kind of straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes action flick they don’t make anymore – no sci-fi, horror or spy elements, no complicated plot twists or wild conspiracies. Just a gung-ho cop, a mad bomber, a leadfoot cutie and a runaway bus. What more do you need? It’s the kind of movie Hollywood used to excel at – a simple idea done exceedingly well. Jokey lines like “did we bomb the guy’s country or something?” may not go over as well today as they did in 1994, but otherwise it’s still just sheer adrenaline-fueled bliss. Most of all, it’s fucking fun. And it occurred to me while watching it exactly what summer movies have been missing for awhile now.

Fun. Remember when summer movies were fun? Jesus Christ, it seems like forever. See, I grew up in the ‘80’s, back when they knew how to make this stuff, and they churned it out every summer, year after year. Seems like a million years ago, doesn’t it? In the immortal words of Van Halen, where have all the good times gone?

With Hollywood’s quest for the almighty dollar reaching ever more desperate heights, I have to wonder if they haven’t forgotten one of the essential elements of boxoffice success. Between the endless dollops of hype and the consumption of mass quantities of cash, you have to actually make a movie that people like. In Speed lingo, Hollywood is “shooting the hostage” – taking the audience out of the equation. Our wants and needs are no longer important, you see, as long as the studios can nail that big opening weekend. A movie doesn’t have to actually be entertaining, so long as the trailer maintains the appearance of actual entertainment. There’s a sucker born every minute, after all.

Another problem is that since 9-11, everything has to be so goddamn serious now. Even our popcorn movies have to be serious. Why? Aren’t people looking for escapism anymore? I’m all for reflecting reality on the screen, but do we always have to surround ourselves with doom and gloom, for fuck’s sake? Does everything we see have to be dark and sad and alienating? It’s like the ghost of Ingmar Bergman has infiltrated the hearts and minds of Hollywood filmmakers – and he’s not even dead.

When I think about this summer’s offerings so far, fun is not really the first word that comes to mind. I enjoyed M:I-3 and Poseidon for what they were, but both have serious fun deficiencies. M:I-3 is fun at times, but the entire film is crippled by the specter of the first scene, in which very bad guy Phillip Seymour Hoffman tortures Cruise and threatens to shoot his girlfriend in the head. Since that scene isn’t resolved until late in the film, we’re constantly on edge in all the wrong ways. It almost feels like we’re the ones being held hostage, and that’s not my idea of a good time. Poseidon, on the other hand, attempts to be fun in all the wrong places. Instead of letting us simply enjoy the inherent drama of a disaster movie, the filmmakers for some unknown reason set up “comic” deaths that seem odd in the context of the rest of the movie. I give them credit, they do take an honest shot at being fun, but the material just isn’t right for that specific kind of fun. It’s like an underwater snuff film directed by Paul Verhoeven. Very strange. It’s one of those movies that will only be “fun” 30 years from now, when people look back on it and go, “what the fuck were they thinking?”

The Omen is fun, but in a very unintentional way. If your idea of fun is laughing at a movie and not with it, then yeah, it’s an absolute riot. But that’s not the kind of fun that I’m looking for. I haven’t seen The Break-Up, and somehow the idea of watching a couple argue for two hours doesn’t seem to fit my requirements. I don’t think I’d find that experience particularly enjoyable at any time of the year. I haven’t seen Nacho Libre yet, though I want to, but I’ve heard that it’s more quirky than it is genuinely funny. Not that I have a problem with “quirky”, but again, not exactly what I’m searching for.

Then there’s The DaVinci Code and X-Men: The Last Stand, both the very epitome of “two-star” films in my book. Good lord, DaVinci couldn’t have been less fun if it had actually tried to be, and I’m not so sure it didn’t. This should have been the escapist thriller of the summer – instead it’s a dreary affair that’s about as exciting as spending an afternoon in a museum where all the good exhibits are closed. Somehow Ron Howard has taken a bestselling potboiler and turned it into the least interesting film of his career. The cast goes through the motions adequately enough, but there’s no life in the thing (except in Audrey Tautou’s big brown eyes, which were the only things keeping me awake). I honestly can’t think of another mainstream “thriller” that’s this slow-paced and exposition-heavy.

What really killed me (and this will be a spoiler, but the damn movie’s been out for over a month, so deal) is that the movie’s heroes are essentially on the wrong side. It’s Ian McKellen’s Sir Leigh Teabing who should have been the hero, and would have been in any other movie. He was the one trying to reveal the truth, after all, and what’s so bad about that? Knowledge is a good thing, right? So what if Jesus had a kid – would that make his teachings somehow less worthy of following? This is part of the problem of all organized religion, that any new information or progress is somehow threatening. Not only that, but even a work of fiction like the movie itself is considered blasphemy! Seriously, how overblown was all that? It’s fiction, fanatics! It’s not real. No one is trying to say that it’s real. It’s a made-up story, and not even a particularly good one. Get over it, for Christ’s sake.

X-Men – boy, where do I even begin? I have to say, I didn’t think it was a total disaster on the Batman and Robin scale. Give Ratner credit for one thing – he was smart enough not to completely throw out the visual style and subversive themes of Bryan Singer’s first two X-movies. I actually thought parts of it worked really well – particularly Rogue’s decision to take the mutant cure (and given her particular powers, one can’t honestly blame her) and her “love triangle” with Kitty Pryde (phenomenally cute Ellen Page) and Iceman (lucky bastard). But then Rogue has always been my favorite character of the series, so I guess I’m biased. I also liked Beast and I even liked Angel’s little subplot, as small as it was. Little things like that worked for me.

It’s just too bad that so much of the major stuff was handled so clumsily, particularly the Dark Phoenix storyline, the deaths of Professor X and Cyclops (offscreen, for fucking god’s sake?), and the war between the mutants in general. Why exactly was this their “last stand”, anyway? The debate behind the mutant cure was so convoluted, it didn’t seem like fighting for the cure was something they were particularly interested in. So what if Magneto wants to destroy it? Wouldn’t that just return everything to status quo (except for the people who’d already been affected by it, obviously)? Again, it seemed like our heroes were on the wrong side of the battle ideologically, which makes it a little difficult to root for them.

I’m not a huge comics fan (I read them when I was a kid, but I haven’t picked up an X-Men comic in a couple of decades), so I don’t particularly care that they messed with “canon” here. I care that they didn’t pull it off as a movie. I know very little about the whole Dark Phoenix thing as portrayed in the comics, but I was expecting a lot more out of the resurrection of Jean Grey than for her to become Magneto’s out-of-control flunky. If anything, I think they tried to squeeze in too much from the comics for the movie’s own good, and they weren’t able to really give many of the subplots and characters the time they deserved. I don’t understand Fox’s arbitrary decision to make this the last X-Men movie – why are they so determined to kill off a cash cow? They could have just kept going with the series, but instead they forced the writers to wrap up every plot and subplot, logic be damned. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater! It’s not entirely Ratner’s fault – he was just the hired gun who took the job – but it doesn’t help that he has the wrong sensibilities either. Slick and superficial is what he does best, and that’s not X-Men. It’s like hiring a porn director to make an epic love story. The Last Stand is only “fun” if you enjoy watching a great movie franchise get desecrated by its own studio.

Leave it to the animated films – specifically Over the Hedge and Cars – to deliver the only genuine fun so far this summer. I’m not particularly a fan of the “talking animals voiced by celebrities” genre of animation (that includes talking vehicles as well), but these two managed to hold my interest, and deliver a few genuine laughs. I took my nephew to both, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed them more than any of the live-action films that I’ve seen this season. That’s pretty sad.

But there’s still hope, or at least I’d like to think so. At this point, we still have Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Lady in the Water, Miami Vice, Talladega Nights (please, please make fun of NASCAR) and the ubiquitous Snakes on a Plane to look forward to. Hopefully at least some of these movies will deliver the kind of excitement, adventure and solid entertainment that used to be a staple of summer moviegoing. For the serious-minded, there’s Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center – and I hope that’s the only deadly serious film I have to see until September. There will be plenty of the rough stuff come fall, and especially during Oscar season. I think I speak for most moviegoers when I say, we want our big, dumb blockbusters back. The good ones, at least. We’re ready to have some real, genuine fun at the movies again. Bring it on.

That’s all for now. I’ll be back with more reviews soon!

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