Thursday, May 10, 2012

Summer Movies (and What Purpose Do They Serve?)

 As you may have noticed, in my review of The Avengers on Monday, I spent some time comparing the film to other "summer movies" / entertainment / etc. Because I wanted to focus on The Avengers as a film (eventually), I left out a lot of why I think its place in with respect to other "summer" fare is helpful. I compared The Avengers to the 2009 Star Trek reboot by JJ Abrams because both films are heavy on personality, entertainment, and flash while adeptly masking the limitations of their respective plots.

 Star Trek and The Avengers are not the norm for the May-to-August run of movies, when people have the most free time and are more likely to go to a nearby multiplex with the family, plop down $50 on tickets and concessions, and escape from reality (and the heat) for two hours. Movies are, by nature, escapism, and while Marvel super heroes and space adventures as escapist entertainment, I give them a little more credit than what passes for "movies" most summers.

 Let's step back quickly and explain how "summer" movies differ from the rest of the year: generally speaking, studios are looking to make movies that bring in the maximum amount of profit while costing as little as possible. Some directors are more than happy to oblige this, some are more interested in telling captivating stories, and there are a few that are capable of doing both. The group that falls in the middle usually see their films released at the end of the year, somewhere between September and December*, in the lead up to "Awards Season," the period between January and March where critics, guilds, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences determine which film was the "best" of the previous year.

 There's a reason that most of those films all seem to have been released during the same period and rarely the summer beforehand. Even less likely are the films released in January and February, the unofficial "dumping ground" for movies that the studios have no faith in recouping their cost. In March and April, there's a slow build of excitement for the big "blockbuster" films coming in May (now the official kickoff of "summer" movies), and a studio might take a risk and release something early to test the waters (John Carter is a good example, both of Disney testing the waters and also of how it didn't work).

 How far back does this go? While you could argue that "spectacle" movies have been a staple of Hollywood since they started competing with television, it's fair to say that the modern trend began with the success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws in 1975, followed by George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977. From that point on, studios increased their attention on releasing big budgeted "blockbuster" movies during the summer to capitalize on a willing public. After this point, the summer releases become more laden with sequels and we're beginning to get to the point that many film purists complain about where the "product" begins to outweigh the picture, and movies like Jaws 3D, for example, become regular releases.

 That's not to say that all summer movies were dispensable cash-ins: it's fair to point out that Apocalypse Now, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Aliens, Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Do the Right Thing, and Big were all summer releases**, among many others. The increased desire for summer entertainment provided a number of fine releases, along with sequels to horror movies, action films, comedies, and science fiction. Some were successful, some weren't; remember that Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Forever, and Batman & Robin were all released in the summer.

 Actually, let's take a look at something, because while I don't want to hang it all on Batman Forever, after Jurassic Park in 1993 things get a little shaky with respect to the "big" summer movies.

1994: Speed, The Lion King, True Lies
1995: Batman Forever, Die Hard with a Vengeance, Apollo 13(?) (that or Judge Dredd)
1996: Mission: Impossible, The Rock, Independence Day
1997: Batman & Robin, The Lost World, Men in Black
1998: Godzilla, Armageddon, Saving Private Ryan (or Lethal Weapon 4)
1999: Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Wild Wild West***
2000: X-Men, Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator (or Space Cowboys)

 And now we get to a point where it's a lot harder to pick the top three...

2001: The Mummy Returns, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Fast and the Furious, Planet of the Apes, Moulin Rouge, Shrek, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Jurassic Park III, American Pie 2, and Rush Hour 2.

 Let's leave it at that, because after 2001 it gets much more difficult to narrow down the films vying for your attention. This is not to say that I didn't leave out choices for earlier years - I did - but not nearly as many as I would be doing if I wanted to continue past 2001. Actually, it looks like I don't have to hang it all on Batman Forever necessarily, because of the movies listed in 2001, the only one I even vaguely enjoyed was AI, which is the least "summer" of the releases.

 Bear in mind that I consider The Mummy to be a perfect example of modern "summer" entertainment, in that it has all of the qualities studios check off when making a list of what audiences "like": action, jokes, appealing leads, special effects, stunts, name recognition (title), genre recognition (similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark template), and even some creepy horror for that demographic. The Mummy balances all of this well without taking too many risks and is accordingly a fun movie that doesn't leave much of an impression when it's over. If you prefer, you could substitute Independence Day and generally have the same description.

 Anyway, somewhere along the line, let's say with Godzilla or Armageddon, the need to appeal to as many audiences as humanly possible became more important that if the movie was watchable. Godzilla is generally remembered as a movie of shameless ad placement, gaudy soundtrack, bad acting, dumb action, and a nonsensical plot. That's if people remember it at all. It was heavily advertised as an "event" and didn't live up to it at all. From that point forward, instead of learning the lesson, studios increasingly made movies where the spectacle was more important than the movie itself, to the point that the number of movies that make you groan outnumber the ones you remember being very good.

 This isn't going to turn into some polemic about how movies today aren't any good or that summer entertainment is almost always garbage designed to get people in theatres to watch movies based on board games or toys... well, okay, let's look at Battleship as compared to say, The Avengers. Not fair, but so what?

 The Avengers is based on four (or five) movies that preceded it all derived from Marvel comic book characters. It joins together four studios: Universal, Paramount, Disney, and Marvel, stars all of the lead characters from each of the previous films (released in 2008, 2010, and 2011) and is written and directed by Joss Whedon, whose only other feature length motion picture is Serenity, a spin-off of a cult sci-fi-western hybrid cancelled by Fox a decade ago. It's a risky proposition, even if you have the utmost faith that everything can go right. It did go right, massively so, which is a good sign for risk taking moving forward.

 Battleship's trailers proudly proclaim "From Hasbro the Company That Brought You Transformers," is based on a board game that it bears no resemblance to other than the fact there are battleships. Its cast includes a pop star (Rihanna), a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model (Brooklyn Decker), one of the vampires from True Blood (Alexander Skarsgård), the guy Universal is hoping you don't associate with John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), and Liam Neeson (Liam Neeson). That covers most demographics ages 18-30, has name recognition, and has tied itself to Transformers, a series of movies that people don't seem to like but they still go see the new one every time Michael Bay cranks one out. Battleship is from the writers of Whiteout and Red (Jan and Erich Hoeber) and the director of Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom, and Hancock (Peter Berg). To be fair, Berg also directed The Rundown and Very Bad Things, two movies I happen to really like. Call me cynical about audiences, but I expect that people will flock to Battleship whether or not it is any good as a movie.

 In the interest of fairness, I must admit that I am excited about a Ridley Scott movie that increasingly looks like a prequel to Alien (Prometheus) and Christopher Nolan's third foray into Batman (The Dark Knight Rises). It's hard to argue that despite the fact that Nolan's Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and Inception are surprisingly clever movies disguised as "spectacle" that I am not buying into the hype for the second sequel to a recognizable brand name comic book character that is, in itself, a reboot of Warner Brothers Batman films from 1989-1997. Similarly, despite the fact that I haven't enjoyed but a handful of Ridley Scott films since Gladiator (let's say Matchstick Men, Kingdom of Heaven, and American Gangster) that I'm excited to see Prometheus based on its (denied) connection to the Alien series, which has been MIA since 1997, unless you count those terrible Alien vs Predator films.

 I am also interested in seeing Piranha 3DD (sequel to a remake), Moonrise Kingdom (based entirely on its director, Wes Anderson), To Rome with Love (new Woody Allen), The Bourne Legacy (sequel / reboot), Total Recall (remake), The Expendables 2 (sequel), and a wary curiosity about Dark Shadows (TV remake), Men in Black III (sequel), and while I don't plan on seeing them, The Amazing Spider-Man (reboot), and G.I. Joe - Retaliation (sequel). I never saw the first G.I. Joe, but then again I hadn't wanted to watch a Fast / Furious movie until Dwayne Johnson joined the cast.

 On the other hand, I can't say I have any desire to check out What to Expect when You're Expecting, LOL, The Road, Snow White and the Huntsman, Chernobyl Diaries, Madagascar 3, Rock of Ages, That's My Boy, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Madea's Witness Protection, Savages, Ice Age 4, Ted, Neighborhood Watch, Step Up: Revolution, or The Apparition.

 The Cap'n isn't representative of most moviegoers, so I can totally understand why people will be seeing these movies even if I don't feel the need to. Despite knowing a number of people who are going to see Dark Shadows because Tim Burton directed it, I can't get over the fact that I haven't liked any of his movies since Big Fish. And I've seen all of them. After a certain point, you have to wonder if it's necessary to keep subjecting yourself to disappointment or to just stay away. I have the feeling The Expendables 2 is probably going to disappoint, but I want to give it a shot to see if Stallone and company learned from the mistakes made in first film. I like to risk it sometimes, but a lot of what I'm seeing this summer doesn't feel like it's worth it.

 But that's this summer, and not every summer. Who knows, maybe one year I'll be back every week like in 2008, where the Cap'n and friends saw just about every major release, from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to The Dark Knight to Hellboy II: The Golden Army to The X-Files: I Want to Believe to The Happening, a movie so terrible that it stops being bad, becomes good, stops being good and goes back to bad and then becomes confoundingly hilarious. Actually, looking at that list, The Dark Knight was the only movie that wasn't disappointing, unless you count the stunned silence that followed The Happening. They were the only movies I saw more than once that summer...

 Well, 2010 then! Yes, that's it! Iron Man 2, Inception, Predators, The Expendables, MacGruber, Get Him to the Greek, Dinner for Schmucks, The Other Guys, and Piranha 3D. That's a little bit better. Not great, but I do remember a few of them beyond the initial viewing, which is more than I can say about The X-Files: I Want to Believe or Godzilla. While I consider The Mummy to be a perfect example of "summer entertainment," that doesn't mean I want to watch variations of it, like Van Helsing, and I see a lot more Van Helsings out there than The Avengers and Star Treks...

* There is a second "blockbuster" season that happens between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, although not to the degree that the summer releases have.
 ** Just in case it comes up, I am aware that Blade Runner was not a successful summer release, nor were The Thing and Tron.They still tend to be smarter than most of what passes for "popcorn fare" these days.
*** It's worth pointing out that The Sixth Sense, American Pie, and The Blair Witch Project weren't on as many people's radars at the beginning of the summer.

No comments: