Saturday, September 16, 2006

Summer '06: the movie season that was

There has been some talk in recent years of the death of the summer movie season. The glut of movie franchises and blockbusters has forced the studios to space the big releases strategically throughout the year, rather than simply when the target audience is on summer vacation. Yet if summer ’06 has proven anything, it’s that pricey, overhyped no-brainers are still most at home during the year’s hottest months. Unfortunately, there seemed to be little else in theatres this past summer, when even ambitious projects and established filmmakers seemed to be off their game.

It’s been pretty well-established that very few truly great films are bestowed upon audiences by Hollywood during the summer. But there have at least been a handful of titles during the past three summers that have been cut or two above the rest, movies in which the filmmakers have been on top of their games. 2005 saw THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN and LAND OF THE DEAD, 2004 brought the release of SPIDER-MAN 2, COLLATERAL, and the underrated MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE remake, and 2003 gave us FINDING NEMO and the sinfully overlooked OPEN RANGE. By comparison, 2006 lacked a Hollywood (or even a high-profile off-Hollywood) release that put forth the extra effort and saw that effort pay off in the end.

Even my favorite Hollywood release of summer ’06, MONSTER HOUSE, is little more than a well-done entertainment. Gil Kenan’s computer-generated adventure has the feel of a Spielberg-produced young adult adventure from the mid-80s (think THE GOONIES), with the difference being the stylized but nonetheless impressive animation on display. Working with the same motion-capture techniques Bob Zemeckis (who exec-produces here) used on POLAR EXPRESS, Kenan combines cartoony character design and lifelike movement, but my favorite technological touch was, for lack of a better expression, the movement of the camera. Perhaps this was a by-product of the motion-capture stuff, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animated film come this close to mimicking the camera work of live-action movies. And nerdy stuff aside, I had a lot of fun watching MONSTER HOUSE. It’s not perfect- the scenes with a bumbling African-American police officer should have been left on the cutting-room floor- but it’s a hell of a good time all the same.

If only I had this much fun during CARS. Time was when Pixar Animation Studios could do no wrong, integrating (in ways that the makers of MONSTER HOUSE no doubt emulated) world-class entertainment with advances in animation technology. And with Pixar honcho John Lasseter himself at the helm, CARS should have continued the trend. Instead, after an exciting auto race at the start, the film gets into a rut that’s all-too-familiar. The story is right out of the forgettable Michael J. Fox starrer DOC HOLLYWOOD, with a cocky big-city protagonist finding himself waylaid in a small town and falling in love with a local girl, and the animation, while beautiful, isn’t as exciting or novel has in previous Pixar classics (after taking on stylized humans in THE INCREDIBLES, talking cars can’t help but feel like a step backwards). Of course, not even Pixar can keep a winning streak going indefinitely, and it appears that next summer’s offering, RATATOUILLE, should put them back on the right path.

Alas, Lasseter wasn’t alone this summer among world-class directors whose latest films weren’t up to their usual high standards. Richard Linklater’s animated Dick adaptation A SCANNER DARKLY was certainly mind-bending, but as with his 2005 remake of BAD NEWS BEARS, SCANNER finds Linklater somewhat ill-at-ease with molding a known text to his own sensibility. The film’s best moments are the least narrative-bound, largely involving the druggy misadventures of a band of misfits led by Keanu Reeves and a nattering Robert Downey Jr., but Linklater is less sure-footed when Dick’s narrative machinations and singular brand of paranoia take center stage, although he rallies at the end with an elegiac denouement taken verbatim from the original novel.

Similarly, Robert Altman’s film of Garrison Keillor’s public-radio mainstay A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION is a perfectly serviceable entertainment taken by itself, but when set alongside Altman’s body of work it comes up short. There’s more than a little fascination to seeing Altman take on an institution such as this, with his camera prowling backstage during a live performance of the program and observing the routines. However, Keillor’s screenplay turns the show as the last one ever, turning the film into a rumination on death that’s too on-the-nose by half (contrast the film’s cipher of an angel, played by Virginia Madsen, with BREWSTER MCCLOUD’s angel, played by Sally Kellerman, who has an actual character to play). Still, there are some choice moments here, with Altman as generous to performers as ever- dig the Streep/Tomlin sister routine, the cowboy bits with Harrelson and Reilly, and a climactic number from Lindsay Lohan that demonstrates that she can be an engaging actor when she decides to put forth the effort.

But at least Linklater and Altman fared better this summer than two former heavyweights, Oliver Stone and Woody Allen. Indeed, WORLD TRADE CENTER felt so little like a Stone film that I barely even mentioned his name in my original review. Stone’s ALEXANDER, for all its faults, was an ambitious project; WTC, on the other hand, is pandering claptrap which largely ignores the tragedy and death of 9/11 in order to manufacture an uplifting ending. Just as unfortunate was Allen’s SCOOP. Despite his uneven output of late, I’ve been reluctant to give up on Allen (I’ve defended ANYTHING ELSE to my friends on multiple occasions). However, given the stale humor and indifferent style of SCOOP, I’m inclined to agree with the naysayers for once. Allen has never been the most relevant of filmmakers, but SCOOP feels more like a justifiably-forgotten comedy from the forties than one of Allen’s usual throwbacks. I suppose this makes SCOOP kind of fascinating to think about, but doesn’t exactly make for a fun night at the movies.

Besides, it seems that the arthouse-lite audiences that once championed Allen’s work have mostly moved on (MATCH POINT is the exception that proves the rule). Which is not to say that the fresher alternatives provided them this past summer have been much of an improvement. THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, a cannily-programmed midsummer anti-blockbuster release, boasted some strong performances (Streep naturally, but also Stanley Tucci), but as a film it did nothing for me. I was somewhat less than taken with DEVIL’s tactic of glorifying its protagonist’s aspirations of journalistic integrity while indulging the target audience’s desire for fashion-porn. I suppose my reaction to the film also had something to do with my distaste for catty humor, in which this film traffics heavily.

Another audience favorite from this past summer was the Sundance hit LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, which represents yet another nail in the coffin for the crowd-pleasing indie comedy. Despite an impressive cast (Kinnear, Carell, Colette, Arkin), directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris never transcend the quirkiness of the proceedings, with characters defined almost entirely by their oddball symptoms in lieu of compelling character traits. From beginning to end, the film panders to the base instincts of the audience by going after one easy target after another- self-help gurus, pompous intellectuals, child beauty pageants, and so on. Worst of all, it’s just not very funny. Once Alan Arkin and his always-sharp timing exited the scene, there was precious little left to engage me.

Yet if there was one word-of-mouth hit that defined this summer for better or worse, it was Davis Guggenheim’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. In the middle of the hottest summer in recent memory, a documentary about global warming was impeccably-timed, to say the least. And if nothing else, the film works as a piece of environmental advocacy for audiences, confronting them with a problem that effects the entire globe and encouraging them to make changes. However, TRUTH lacks the filmic flair of, say, THE CORPORATION (another recent bit of cinematic advocacy), remaining at its core a videotaped account of one of Al Gore’s slide presentations. Gore himself became a media darling on the heels of TRUTH- appearing on SNL and on the Entertainment Weekly cover- which says as much with the audience’s malaise at our current leadership as it does with any of Gore’s words or actions in the film itself.

But if Al Gore was able to bestow the cinematic equivalent of green vegetables on appreciative audiences- in select cities- this summer was otherwise chock full of bloated, empty-calorie entertainments. As expected, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST was the big winner at the box office, the rare film that, in the abstract sense, appealed to all potential audiences. However, while the first PIRATES had the virtue of being a big-budget adventure with a subversive turn by Johnny Depp at its center, its sequel has almost none of that novelty, the sense of danger that came with the feeling that the film was somehow getting away with something. By now, Captain Jack Sparrow has been accepted by Hollywood’s mainstream (Oscar nomination, franchise, and all), and while DEAD MAN’S CHEST contains some startling design elements, in particular Bill Nighy’s Davy Jones, that hardly compensates for the same-old-same-old feeling the film gives off.

Speaking of same-old, Superman flew back onto screens this year as well, but strangely enough some sort of transformation has occurred. I don’t mean Brandon Routh jumping into Christopher Reeve’s cape and tights- I mean the big blue Boy Scout reinvented as a mopey emo type with superpowers. Much like PIRATES, the spectacle present in Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS is impressive, but what’s lacking is the sense of fun displayed by its predecessors. Routh’s Clark Kent has none of the doofy charm of Reeve’s, and is presented here as little more than Superman in a suit and glasses. In addition, Singer shot the film largely using HD cameras, which dulls the seemingly requisite strong color palette of Superman’s world. The end result is surprisingly joyless, a sequel/re-invention that is more dutiful than exciting.

Other big-ticket items suffered from a lack of entertainment value. THE DA VINCI CODE was never a great piece of literature, but it has a kind of kitschy fun to it, spiced with religious trappings, that was somehow blunted by Ron Howard’s workmanlike direction and the studio’s attempts to appease the rabble-rousers. X-MEN: THE LAST STAND brought back most of our favorites from the previous installments (notable exception: Nightcrawler) and more besides, then devoting precious little time to their character arcs before hurtling them all into the battle royale promised in the title. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III was more entertaining than most of this summer’s blockbusters largely because it trimmed most of the fat from part II, assuming the clean, limber style of director J.J. Abrams’ hit series ALIAS.

My biggest disappointment of the summer was almost certainly Michael Mann’s updating of MIAMI VICE. As with much of Mann’s work, the details are effective here- a drug kingpin’s cordial farewell and Gong Li’s disheveled hair after disembarking a speedboat, to cite two examples. Likewise, the film is gorgeous to look at, since Mann is virtually alone among Hollywood filmmakers in his expressive use of digital video. However, MIAMI VICE displays surprisingly little interest in its story or characters. Crockett and Tubbs hardly seem to be characters in the conventional sense, with Mann using them alternately as pawns of the plot and totems of cool. As a result, the film’s ostensible story rarely holds much interest, since it’s clear that Mann isn’t all that interested in giving them the chance to solve any crimes for themselves (consider the abduction/rescue sequence, in which the guys supposedly figure out exactly which trailer park Tubbs’ girlfriend is being held in what feels like two minutes). Perhaps I’ll revisit MIAMI VICE sometime in the future, with my expectations having been dispelled, but as it stands I couldn’t help but be let down.

A strange by-product of my development as a moviegoer has been a shift in my attitude towards Hollywood entertainments. When I was younger, I was of the attitude that bigger and more lavish spectacle was best, and then as I became more serious about my love for film I dismissed Hollywood almost entirely. In recent years, my feelings have shifted again, since I’ve grown to appreciate the virtues of dirty, scruffy B-movies. It’s one thing to champion extol the virtues of B-movie masters of yore (Hellman, Fuller, et al), but there’s fun to be had in recent smaller-scale entertainments as well. My favorite example from this past summer has to be THE DESCENT, a nerve-wracking horror flick about a group of adventurous young women who get lost in a cave system. While the gorehounds will no doubt geek out on the film’s later scenes, in which the women are beset by strange creatures who live in the caves, I was actually partial to the first hour, which were dominated by a creeping dread, a combination of the claustrophobia of the caves (you won’t get me down into one of those) and the creeping dread of the women who have obviously strayed off the path and have to find their way back.

Still, as grimy as THE DESCENT was, it’s downright respectable compared to some of the summer’s B-movie offerings. With a fond tip of the hat to SNAKES ON A PLANE- exactly the movie that its dum-dum title deserved, and I mean that in the best sense- no new movie I saw in the past three months or so was as disreputably entertaining as CRANK (released on 9/1, so it counts as summer, right?). CRANK is as nasty and propulsive as its title and plot summary (a poisoned criminal has to keep moving or he’ll die) might suggest, and accordingly the film seemingly invites love-it-or-hate-it reactions. As for me, I dug it, not least as a tonic after the summer’s gargantuan spectacles. Sure, it’s probably racist and sexist, and almost certainly homophobic, but it’s got chutzpah, which is key for movies of this type, and I couldn’t help but groove on that throughout the relatively short running time. Let’s just say this- either you enjoy movies in which a baddie feeds raw meat to his dogs while getting pleasured orally, or you don’t. I enjoyed a number of classic B-movies as part of the Wexner Center's B-Movie Hootenanny series this summer, and half a century from now I suspect movies like CRANK will be gracing similar series.

Having moved back to Columbus in the middle of the summer, I missed some of the higher-profile comedies, such as NACHO LIBRE and CLICK. But I feel safe in saying that neither film could have been as enjoyable as my two favorite comedies of the summer, BEERFEST and TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY. BEERFEST finds the Broken Lizard boys in top form after the uneven CLUB DREAD, cleverly combining the beer-chuggin’ fratboy vibe implied by the title with a surprisingly spot-on parody of sports movies. While 2004’s DODGEBALL attempted to cover the same ground, its ironic Frat Pack-style humor didn’t mesh very well with the material, but Broken Lizard traffics in laughs of a more good-natured variety- they’re all pretty nice guys at heart, which makes the film go down that much easier (this is the ideal Studio 35 movie, since you can take a draft beer or three with you into the movie). And three cheers for Cloris Leachman as Great Gam Gam. How many Oscar winners would not only take the role of an elderly German prostitute in a low-cult comedy, but could essay the resulting gags without ever sacrificing her dignity?

If anything, TALLADEGA NIGHTS has even more laughs than BEERFEST. While it has more of a narrative structure than Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s previous vehicle ANCHORMAN, it doesn’t let down as an uproarious comedy. Ferrell and sidekick John C. Reilly are a lot of fun together as lifelong pals turned NASCAR racers, but the film really finds its groove once Sacha Baron Cohen, played gay French Formula One racer Jean Girard, enters the scene. Whereas without Girard the film would simply be a genial good-ol’-boy comedy, with Girard the film gains immeasurably both in laughs and subtext. Whereas Ricky Bobby and his gang represent pure machismo-driven momentum (“I wanna go fast!” is Ricky Bobby’s credo), Girard’s presence causes Ricky Bobby to question this, and guides him to question his previously-unexamined laugh. Whereas many comedies strain for meaning and lose comedy as a result (for example, CLERKS II, which stops dead in its tracks for a teary-eyed dramatic scene), TALLADEGA NIGHTS pulls it off without skipping a beat.

Finally, no recap of summer 2006 would be complete without at least mentioning M. Night Shyamalan’s more-than-a-little-unhinged LADY IN THE WATER. As storytelling, it’s a mess; as directorial indulgence, it’s borderline reprehensible. And I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Whereas Shyamalan’s previous films have stretched credibility with their reliance on coincidences and unlikely plot developments, LADY gleefully embraces these storytelling devices. Once it becomes clear that Shyamalan is no longer concerned with making his story convincing, it becomes that much easier to groove on his still-intact directorial chops. Somehow, in the midst of all the sound and fury, Paul Giamatti gives one of his best performances, and he’s backed by an able and game cast. I still think that Shyamalan might be better off in the long run if he started working from others’ scripts, but LADY IN THE WATER is, if nothing else, a fascinating singularity, and more intriguing than almost anything else Hollywood had to offer this summer.


Reel Fanatic said...

Great analysis ... Beerfest was easily the funniest movie of this summer, so definitely check it out as soon as it hits DVD .. Nacho Libre had its charms too ... M Night's Lady in the Water, however, just made me cry at how bad it was .. Beyond the arrogance of making himself a writer who will be killed because his ideas are too dangerous to the world, it's just the silliest and most boring movie I've seen in many years

Donna B. said...

What a wrapup!

I disagree with you about A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION, and at some point I guess I'll have to write about why. And I'll see MONSTER HOUSE before the end of the year; I'm certainly intrigued by your high praise.