Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Summer Movie Wrap-Up

We've arrived at the end of another blockbuster movie summer, and many in the industry and press have already written an epitaph for the season. There were a lot of failures at the box office in the summer of 2005, and some surprise hits too. Revealing once more the critical community's general disconnect from the vast movie-going populace, some of the least well-received films by critics (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Fantastic Four) are doing great business. And - in a reversal of the Seabiscuit Principle - some fine, well reviewed films (like Cinderella Man) have bombed.

A few articles on the topic of the summer box office sweepstakes can be found
here at the Post-Gazette, and also at The Chronicle, here. Box Office Mojo has the skinny on Michael Bay's The Island, and its weak debut here.

I realize that for many studios and films, this summer meant "flat" earnings, and some voices have decried the domination of re-makes and sequels at the box office, but - in the science fiction and horror genres at least - I'd say that overall filmmakers got things just about right this summer. We had some very fine films to enjoy, and ones that often succeeded on an artistic basis.

This is how I would rank the "big" genre offerings this summer:

1.) George A Romero's Land of the Dead: This is the sequel I waited 20 years for (literally...) and it did not disappoint. Although I was surprised to see a traditional white male "hero" take center stage in the zombie saga since Romero has a tradition of casting African-Americans (Night of the Living Dead) and women (Day of the Dead) as protagonists, otherwise this film surpassed expectations. Set in a future, post-zombie/post-apocalyptic world where the rich, greedy and white live in luxury in a skyrise called Fiddler's Green and everybody else lives in squalor, Romero's movie is the perfect metaphor for "Fortress America" and post-September 11th thinking. It reveals the folly in the notion that we can just lock ourselves up, ignore the rest of the world, and hope that global problems don't reach us. Dennis Hopper's line about not negotiating with terrorists got a huge laugh from the audience I saw the film with.

Beyond the rich subtext, however, I was also delighted to see that Romero hadn't lost his master's touch at scaring the wits out of audiences. I saw this film in a full auditorium of mostly over-thirty-year-old married couples, and people jumped and screamed through the whole show. The movie kept all of us on-edge. Both a brilliant reflection of our times and a scary date-movie at the same time, Land of the Dead is the best genre film of the summer, regardless of its box-office take. By its own rules, and by the standards of Romero's zombie series, this film is a winner.

2.) Batman Begins: Who knew that a re-boot could give this ailing franchise such a shot in the arm? No bones about it, this is the best Batman movie yet produced, invigorated by Christopher Nolan's freedom to start over and take everything a step at a time. I love that - for once - a Batman film focuses on Batman's technology, and the reality of how he creates his world of batmobiles, batarangs and the like. Other movies treat these gadgets and vehicles as a "given," and that just amps up the fantasy aspects. This is a movie that - a sign of the times, no doubt - is grounded in reality and earns every step it takes. I do think the film falls down a bit in the last act, but this is a minor quibble. Nolan's action scenes are claustrophobic and confusing (though I can see what he was going for...) and there are massive holes in the climax (hundreds of Gothamites must have been killed...), but at the center of all this is a rock-solid force named Christian Bale. He gives a great performance as Wayne/Batman, and shows what a talented actor can do with the role when he isn't being upstaged by silly one-liners or fantastic (but improbable...) set-pieces. With Batman Begins and Spider-Man I & II, the age of the Superhero Triumphant is truly upon us. Like Land of the Dead, there is also a splendid subtext here: the idea that the world is in our hands, and it is up to each one of us to stand up to corruption and graft. Take that Tom Delay!

The film's biggest weakness is the miscasting of Katie Holmes as a high-powered assistant district attorney. This isn't a slight against Holmes - I've enjoyed her performances in many films (including Sam Raimi's The Gift), but she doesn't appear old enough to have graduated from law school, let alone have risen through the ranks of a DA's office. And that Betty Boop voice makes it hard to take her line-readings seriously.

3.) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: I suppose this is a sentimental choice more than a solid critical one. This is the best of the prequel trilogy, but as many have pointed out, perhaps that isn't really saying much. This film - like Phantom Menace and Attack of The Clones - suffers from weak dialogue, poor plotting, and an obsession on juvenile genre concepts (a wheezing war droid that is built up as a terror but then easily dispatched; a giant lizard steed for Obi-Wan, etcetera).

Yet the last forty-five minutes or so of Sith are incredibly powerful, and unfold with an inevitability that is grand, and quite touching. As the film leads us back to the beginning of the saga, the original Star Wars, this film truly takes flight. We've known for years the fate of Obi-Wan, Vader, Yoda, etcetera, but to see it unfold before us is still amazing, and touching. Some critics have compared the film to The Godfather, and in some odd way, that's apt. Like Coppola's masterpiece, the last sequences of Revenge of the Sith don't play favorites; don't candy-coat the darkness for the Jar-Jar crowd, and don't minimize the terror of the Empire's ascent. The sequence that involves the assassination of the Jedi Order is one of the best set-pieces Lucas has yet directed, and utterly, totally chilling.

Again, I felt there was a rich sub-text in this film. "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes," is Kenobi's response to Anakin's George W. Bush-like assertion that Obi Wan is either with him or against him. And the moment when the Emperor seizes power and Amidala notes that this "how democracy dies") - reminded me of the passage of the Patriot Act and how Americans have been asked to trade civil liberties for security. Positively chilling.

Overall, I enjoyed Revenge of the Sith tremendously, but again - I felt this way about Attack of the Clones in the theaters too. Then when I got the DVD home and watched it again, I realized just how flat and cartoony the whole enterprise was. I hope the same won't happen with Revenge of the Sith.

4. War of the Worlds: Frankly, I resisted seeing this Steven Spielberg film for weeks. Tom Cruise has made such a royal ass of himself between "couch jumping" on Oprah and haranguing Matt Lauer about psychiatric drugs that it drained every bit of desire I had to see the film. I'm not alone, either. There isn't one person in my circle of friends and associates who hasn't felt the same way. So if War of the Worlds isn't the mega-hit that some folks predicted, I say blame Cruise's oddball TV antics. It's probably not fair to judge the film based solely on a dislike of Cruise's behavior, but said behavior killed a lot of folks' interest in what should have been a must-see project, that's for sure.

As for the movie itself, it is actually a very powerful film at moments, picking up on and amplifying a subconscious dread at work in the culture; a fear of another September 11th, except on a grander scale. The special effects are great, the alien attacks are horrific, and the film garners major points for opening and closing with the eloquent words of H.G. Wells (read beautifully by narrator Morgan Freeman). The film is dark, substantial and serious, and at times, you almost want to turn away from the screen because it is clear that humans are, as Tim Robbins' character states - being ruthlessly exterminated. The sound of the alien "horn" becomes a signal for fear to the audiences, and gives one a bad case of the creeps.

But by the second half of the film, one begins to realize that Spielberg may have an unhealthy obsession with children. There are so many inherently interesting ideas about an alien invasion of Earth - and the impact on humanity - and yet Spielberg repeats the hackneyed subplot of Jurassic Park and makes it all about Tom Cruise learning to be a better father. This is not only contrived, but a bit insulting. There are so many other important stories one could tell in this sitaution - stories of personal courage, of sacrifice, helping those who AREN'T blood, of holding on to one's humanity in a time of the mob mentality, to name but a few. I wish Spielberg would focused more heavily on some of those themes.

And the film's ending is a total Hollywood cop-out. I'm not talking about the destruction of the aliens by Earth's germs - that's a given from the novel - but rather the idea that Tom Cruise's son would show up alive and unharmed in Boston. That's flatly unacceptable dramatically. No way. Again - and we've seen this in A.I. and other Spielberg films - there's a terrible tendency to oversentimentalize; to go for the maudlin and the cute rather than the authentic. So at the end of the War of the Worlds - Cruise's character Ray has lost nobody? Not one family member? Nope, cuz he's learned to be a good dad. He knew when to let his son go. Ugh. How much more powerful would the film have been had his son been killed, a casualty of the extermination? But as it stands, not one major character dies in the film, except Robbins (and Cruise, not the alien invaders, kills him,...). Even Ray's ex-wife, her parents, and the boyfriend are alive and well in Boston when the curtain falls.

I guess I'd give War of the Worlds a modest three stars. Much of it works well, and yet often in the film I would find myself thinking that it was just a long chase, and one that ends without a real climax to boot.

Any thoughts out there on this summer and the movies? What are your favorites? Least favorites? Why? Let me know!

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