Reflections On a Super Summer

The usual gripe is that summer blockbuster movies are big, dumb and full of popcorn. But a funny thing happened on the way to this year’s summer solstice. High profile studio films –traditionally only appealing to teenagers– got smarter, more adventurous and provocative enough to capture most everybody’s attention. Granted, they’re still dressed up as infantile teen fodder but those who dared to look under the myriad of masks found a summer full of subversive ideas and cinematic pleasures. Strangely, the sector that usually provides a breath of fresh air during this season, indy films (not the Jones kind either), remained quiet and, for those that spoke, dull and contrived (last week’s “The Longshots” directed by, eek, Fred Durst). Needless to say I learned a few valuable lesions this summer. The first and most glairing insight is that superhero films don’t have to be shallow and bloated examples of a greedy Hollywood apparatus out of ideas as this summer’s super-titles provided a vital burst of imagination and entertainment.

The second lesson turned out to be a simple one: PEOPLE REMEMBER. Record books show the first “Chronicles of Narnia” adventure capturing a lot more revenue than the last “Batman” film that same year but, guess what, most of us remember “Narnia” as inferior/pandering children’s entertainment dressed up as epic fantasy while Christopher Nolan’s edgy “Batman” series had a unique style and something to say. That “Batman” scored while “Narnia” snored should be no surprise. By the way, people also remembered that the first “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and last “Mummy” film failed to meet expectations, which explains the sound of crickets you heard at the multiplex. This brings me to another point: 90s star Brendan Fraser, who can be seen in “Mummy 3” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” should henceforth only be allowed one film per summer, make that year, make that century. Same goes for Liv Tyler who doubled our torture with the one-two punch of “The Strangers” and “The Incredible Hulk.”

The fourth and final lesson is that summer is still not a time for unabashed adult fare (we’ll have to wait till November for that). Besides a “Brideshead Revisited” remake here and a Phillip Roth “Eulogy” adaptation there (two fine literate pieces), straightforwardly serious movies were either missing in action or killed in action if the snubbing of the surprisingly soulful and mature faith-based “X-Files” sequel is any indication. In fact, summer immaturity is so rampant that even the can’t-miss art house favorite Ben Kingsley ended up attached to a bong (check out The Wackness on DVD soon!) while the can-and-does-miss Kevin Costner remained a dullard in the non-comedy event known as “Swing Vote.”

What Worked

Dark Knight

This is a sprawling film about a damaged and possibly even deranged vigilantly (a pitch perfect Christian Bale) fighting the forces of chaos in the form of a maniac clown (the brilliant Heath Ledger). That Batman uses fascist tactics to take down evil to serve some twisted idea of a “greater good” makes it a complex sociological parable for our troubled times. “The Dark Knight” soars on ideas as much as action and that’s why adults and children alike found something to celebrate. This is a rare and wondrous Hollywood event that, despite a long running time and verbose disposition, united all moviegoers.

Hell Boy II

Such invention! Such joy of craft! Such wonder! Such… weirdness. Every second of Guillermo del Toro’s marvelous invention known as “Hellboy II” is a pleasure. A pleasure to look at, to laugh at and to listen to. That many “Hellboy” fans are being hard on it is vexing to say the least. A

Wall-E

Pixar’s obligatory summer release is the best in… uh, ever, actually. What sold me is that this is an animated film that goes beyond the usual talking animal escaping from the city crap we’ve been feed these last few years. Wall-E, the most exspressive robot since R2D2, resides in a post-apocalyptic/post-human world. He is a lonely and virtually obsessive compulsive robot that existentially toils away while crafting endless, meaningless stacks of trash cubes on our scorched earth. He also recites show tunes! There may not be much dialogue in this futuristic indictment on big business and crass consumerism but there is a lot of heart. “Wall-E” is as graceful and intelligent as children’s entertainment gets.

Man on a Wire

You get exactly the title promises in this stunning documentary. See it now before it falls out of theaters.

Iron Man

Another superhero?! Look, I’m not the biggest superhero film fan out there but I simply can’t ignore the quality coming out of the comic world these last few months. And neither should you! Give the masks a chance, especially “Iron Man” who negotiates topical issues such as the war on terror and the shady military industrial complex that he’s very much apart of. Speaking of complexes, Robert Downey Jr. as the flawed but flighted Iron Man strikes while the, uh, iron is hot. Forgive the pun.

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Woody Allen has made what you could call a travelogue spoof. You know those contrived movies where Americans go to Europe and are transformed by the quaint locals and locals (see “A Good Year”)? Well, with Allen a the helm (as sharp and as bitter as ever) the Americans (lead by Scarlett Johansson and the fabulous show-stealing newcomer Rebeca Hall) find themselves drunk on culture but end up as confused and disillusioned as ever. And the Europeans (lead by a cool and lean Javier Bardem and a fiery Penelope Cruz in what may be her best performance to date) don’t fare much better. Structurally this film’s story is all over the place with characters hooking up in all variations and the lack of a typical lead. And all over the place exactly where it needs to be for Allen to make his point. That Americans are scatterbrained and always feel entitled to total happiness, transformation, sexual liberation and artistic expression (and, thus, are destined to never be “fulfilled”). And that Europeans are passionate messes that are more full of culture than logic. The two can never be simpatico. As a modern “Jules and Jim,” this might be the happiest and most exuberant film about miserable people I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is warm and inviting and the performances are perfectly suited for the material. And Allen? Better than ever. This is also a minor piece of Woody Allen romance fiction that highlights, underlines and italicizes my theory that minor Allen is better than major anything else. A-

X-Files: I Want to Believe

This alien-free “X-Files” film is not about conspiracies. It’s about faith. And hope. And Mulder. And Scully. I loved it for its refusal to be an “X-Files” movie in quote makes. This one is destined to go down as a strange and unclassifiable film. What I want to know is that at what point can we call this cult film? B+

What Didn’t

The Incredible Hulk

You know you’re in trouble when the best thing about “The Incredible Hulk” is… Iron Man? That’s right, the film ends with a Robert Downy Jr. as Tony Stark cameo and, if you ask me, should have began there too as a way of sparing us from all of Edward Norton’s green-tinted preening.

Sex and the City

Because enduring 22 minutes of “Sex” took every ounce of will power I had, let alone two and a half hours!

Hancock

Drunk and surly superheroes are fantastic. I paid to see it in a heartbeat. It’s when they sober up to become normalized/sanitized/institutionalized that we have a problem. Here’s hoping Will Smith’s Hancock stays OFF the wagon if he ever stumbles into another movie again.

The Happening

For M. Night Shyamalan’s “suspense” scene that depicts Mark Whalberg engaging in a showdown with a houseplant and so, so much more.

The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Because after “Scorpion King” nobody was asking for a sequel, let alone a “Mummy” movie set in China and directed by the guy who did “XXX” (Rob Cohen). Thankfully, we can all rest assured that the Mummy will finally rest in peace after this nail in the coffin, or shall I say tomb.

What Happens in Vegas

The two most annoying actors of their day (Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz) combine at a point of bad movie singularity to create, rather predictably, the single most annoying film of the summer. This one should have stayed in Vegas.

Guilty Pleasures

Tropic Thunder

Uproarious funny and offensive. A great premise (actors in Vietnam who think they’re shooting a film) followed by a gem of a cast that includes Stiller playing dumb, Jack Black playing high and Downy Jr. playing, well, black (shouldn’t Jack Black have done that?). But no amount of coated sugar can sweeten an aimless and, more often than not, redundant comedy that would have worked better as a short. We get it, the film is about actors so far out of their element that they mistake danger for Hollywood pomp. But after that bit is played, and re-played, the joke isn’t so much on them but on us for buying into it. B-

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

While many (fans even) are vocally opposed to Lucas’ instance upon keeping the flat lining Star Wars universe alive, I find myself silently begging for him to never let it die. Stay strong, George!

Okay, conventional criticism does nothing to help this film. The story is the series’ most drab and colorless. “Wars” follows Dookoo and his jerky clones as they do battle with (a strangley voiced) Obi Wan’s storm troopers while Anikin yucks it up with the most annoying alien since JarJar, a padawan female cohort that aids Anikin on a babbtsitting mission to save Jaba the Hut’s smelly, slug like offspring. “sometimes the best defence IS a good ofence” the all too appropratley Sucka yaps to Anikin in her females-can-use-the-force-too irkesome banter that does nothing to reverse Lucas’ partheical narrative order.

Indeed, the only thing more murkey than the techno jumbled plot is the cumbersome cg visuals that lack substancial feeling and moods. I guess my point is that while there is a lot to harp on here, this breezy summer release should not be judged by classic sci-fi standards. That said this hokey adventure is right at home in the retconned Clone Wars backsaga. The force is mild with this one.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skill

While I’m on the topic of corny ol’ George Lucas, his decade spanning baby directed by Steven Spielberg arrived this year too. It came, it made money yet it got a lot of heat for its uneven, genre confused screenplay. Seems as though the little green men that were surprisingly missing from this summer’s “X-Files” film found there way here, in a throwback adventure film that has as much to do with science-fiction as “Schindler’s List.” Call me brainwashed but I was charmed by the septuagenarian Harrison Ford trekking across the globe to excavate alien parts. Goofy, yes, but that’s why it’s called a guilty pleasure.

Pineapple Express

Running wildly contrary to indie director David Gordon Green’s auteur status (he’s the only new one from this decade!), I was surprised to find that there is not much of a “film” here. But that’s alright because there is much of a comedy. As well as random, blistering action homages to 90s classics such as “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard”–I’m talking brutal beat-em-ups, deafening gun fights and, well, giggling bong tokes. That reminds me, this is the best stoner film ever. The classic duo of Seth Rogen and James Franco out-drive “Dude Where’s My Car,” out puff Cheech and Chong and out, well, everything Harold and Kumar and their summer dud. B+

X-Files: I Want to Believe

First “Dark Knight” had to go and be all non superhero-y and now the contrarian genre bug has gotten its claws into my “X-Files.” The subtitle for this sequel is “I want to Believe,” which is, of course, the show’s slogan… um, for anyone who remembers the show. That iconic slogan captured a wandering 90s malaise and referred at once to FBI Agent Mulder and Skully’s investigation of the supernatural/occult/various peoples of the blood sucking fish persuasion. It’s appropriate this time too but not in the creature feature way one would think. And, beyond what one might think, not even in the other ways one might think (as a topical call to believe in today’s fractured governing body). So, then, rather then going after aliens or an alien controlled Bush administration (which would have been totally cool by the way), the “belief” here is entirely faith-based, referring to one’s belief in higher powers, the church and the possibility for redemption. All major characters this applies to, from out beloved agents (now a couple–yay) to the pre-cognitive/ child molesting priest that claims he hears god and assists the retired agents as they head into “the darkness” one more (last?) time.

This free floating desire to believe also refers to the villain, a gay Russian organ thief played appropriately by one of the Cylons from “Battlestar Glatica” or Budget Daniel Craig as I like to call him which is a hell of a lot easier than writing his real name Callum Keith Rennie. And, no, the of the day doesn’t have tentacles. He’s not a vampire. And he doesn’t levitate with insane in the membrane psychic abilities. This departure makes for one of the most extreme cases of genre skipping I have witnessed since Paul Schrader’s “Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist,” and just as dogmatic too! It is, for all intents and purposes, devoid of any tangible supernatural presence and avoids all the trappings one expects from an X-Files adventure. Which means: no special effects. No guns. And no aliens. Not one! And yet… the film worked for me. It’s ability to connect with these characters is a minor marvel. They carry the plot a long way; past, even, my nostalgia for the series and desire to believe in the series itself.

This is a wonderful film. The problem is, it’s just not a good “X-Files” film. Fans will and have ripped into writer/director/creator Chris Carter for taking the series away from them but I rather respect what he’s going for. Maturity and thoughtfulness, after all, is not a summer staple.