It used to be that summer releases stayed confined to, well, the summer months for their release. Come June, July and (reluctantly) August, you’d get your choice of tentpole movies meant to prop up a studio’s revenue for a few months before the quick rush to the home market right around Christmas time.
But as studios shift comfortably into their unspoken non-complete clauses, where only one big movie seems allowed to open every weekend (and we do mean EVERY weekend), those summer movies have begun creeping into May and now, finally, April, which was at one time a mishmash of Hollywood also-rans and Weird Little Films from earnest first-time filmmakers. Now? Those Weird Little Films are shoulder-to-shoulder with the summer blockbuster season’s advance scouts.
Bureau Chiefs Dorian Wright and Ken Lowery take a look at what April 2010 has to offer the movie-goer.
Clash of the Titans
DW: There are two things here that I’m really enthusiastic about. The first is Louis Leterrier as director. I’m a sucker for that French action movie style, and I’m actually curious enough to see how it melds with the big CGI showcase style of film-making to overlook my usual skepticism towards the big CGI showcase style of film-making. The second is just the fact that we’re getting a big showcase film dedicated to classical mythology instead of yet another sci-fi or horror film in the style.
I’ve still got reservations, though. Although the original film looks pretty dated now, both for its special effects and its overall style, it still holds up remarkably well, probably because telling a coherent story is one of those little details that blockbuster film-makers have let fall by the wayside in recent years. I’m just not sold on the need for a remake here. It’s not as if the film-makers have to pay anyone to use the names of mythical figures in the film, and using the name feels like a move designed to win over nerds, and they’re just not a strong enough base to make a film a success. My other big reservation is Sam Worthington, not out of any antipathy to his acting. In fact, this will be the first film he’s made I’m likely to see. I just don’t see his turn as Perseus having the same impact on gay men and proto-gay kids that Harry Hamlin in a toga did in the ’80s.
I’m also not real happy about this last-minute 3D angle, but the migraine-inducing effects of those damn glasses is an argument for another time.
KL: My reaction upon first seeing the trailer was “so, I guess someone just gave a Dungeon Master a hundred million dollars and said ‘go nuts.’” Because hey, it’s all there: the gratuitous monster overkill, the latter-day prog rock soundtrack, and deadly serious proclamations from stern dudes. Given that there’s likely a whole generation of DMs influenced by the original Clash of the Titans to find this the apex of storytelling, maybe we’re just coming full circle.
But I have to step back before snark overtakes me entirely. Why? Because there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with pure spectacle. And in an era when studios are struggling to remain relevant in the face of ever-cheaper (and ever more enjoyable) home theater experiences, it’s not unexpected for them to just throw a shit-ton of CGI at the screen and hope it sticks. So long as the SFX festival has some kind of honest core to it—think Speed Racer, another pure-spectacle vehicle that was a sheer delight—it’ll be a good time.
KL: Well, they pretty much sketch the arc of the thing out in the trailer, don’t they? It looks like a weepy thing—lots of grief and misplaced anger until everyone learns a more constructive way to heal and move forward. And wouldn’t you know it, family always grows.
OK, so that’s a little facetious. I finally saw An Education the other day and, yes, Carey Mulligan really is that good, and folks like Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon always have a baseline of reliability. But I note that this is Shana Feste’s first outing as a writer-director, so I’m guessing The Greatest is just going to overflow with earnestness. And earnestness, like herpes, is best experienced in manageable flare-ups.
DW: “Earnest” is a far kinder description than I’d be tempted to give. The over-wrought angst of films like this have never appealed to me, and we’ve all seen the individual components (grieving parents, lost love, alienated sibling) in other films. This one just arranges them in a slightly different configuration than other films do. But not so different as to venture far from the baseline of these tragedies affecting comfortably middle class, white heterosexuals.
DW: These epic Chinese films are always visually interesting, but are so strongly dependant on a knowledge of Chinese history and culture that I always feel like I’m only getting half the story. Which is fine, a well-made film is a well-made film, even if I don’t know whether or not the name General Pang would have more signifigance to someone raised in China than it does to me. But there is a certain sameness to a lot of the Chinese films that get released in this country, borne probably out of the demands of the audience for the films. They want to see more films about dudes in armor fighting each other with plausibility-pushing stunts. I think I’ve had my fill of them, though. Let me know when something more emotionally involving comes along.
KL: I think the thing about China I’m most envious of is their 6,000+ years of history to pull on for epics like this. With whippersnappers like America, you get 1776 and Glory and I guess maybe Tombstone and you’re pretty much set.
I am predicting Warlords will have a not-fun scene/fun scene ratio of 4:1.
Why Did I Get Married Too?
DW: It’s easy to take pot-shots at Tyler Perry films. Especially for people who have never actually bothered to watch one. He actually does what does very well. He is just doing it for a very narrow and specific audience. And that’s fine. Hell, I’ve seen just about every gay romantic comedy ever made, I’m certainly not going to begrudge Perry his success with doing didactic films about relationships for religous and conservative black audiences.
He is pretty much just making the same two films over and over, though. I preferred his stage musicals.
KL: I think what puts me off Perry’s work is the self-conscious importance of the promotional material. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a work solely on how the trailers are cut, but, hey, those trailers are meant to entice, and his simply fail to do so. It could be the general “stage” tone of his stories; I’ve never been much for theater. And that penchant he has for putting himself into a movie to talk sass and tell everyone what they’re doing wrong—dude, come on. That’s not a story, that’s a badly-disguised sermon.
But—awful sequel title aside—this one actually looks like it might rise out of the muck of melodrama and strive for greater authenticity. Let us hope. I don’t have much use for the guy, but good filmmaking benefits everyone.
DW: Now, this is the kind of horror film I can get behind. A psychological basis, with an existential terror at the root of it. I’m still not sold on Justin Long, but Liam Neeson and Christina Ricci are always enjoyable, even when it’s clear that they’re only in a “down payment on a house” film. But the premise here works for me and has strong potential. Either you’ve got a ghost story, with Ricci unable to move on because she refuses to admit that she’s dead, or you’ve got a creepy psycho stalker film with Neeson as a particularly psychologically sadistic serial killer. In either case, I’m intrigued and want to know more.
KL: I’m gonna go out on a limb and say we discover she really is dead, and Neeson is some kind of Charon figure who’s giving her a tough-love approach to accepting what’s happened. Even the bloodiest ghost story movies tend to have (or strive for) an ending with emotional resonance. If I’m wrong, well, that’s OK too.
I won’t lie. Ghost stories get me. The guilt, the fear, the uncertainty, the seasickness of reality becoming elastic, the scares and the sadness—I won’t lie; I get high off that stuff. In the wake of seeing or reading a really good one, I wonder why anyone bothers with any other kind of story.
Anyway, Liam Neeson as psychopath or psychopomp: sold.
KL: Once upon a time there was a massively successful comic book writer named Mark Millar. Long ago, Millar may have had something resembling a soul; so that his ability to spin fun high-concept stories was weighted down with something like a care for what, exactly, he put out there for public consumption.
But then Millar discovered something. He discovered that if you simply went with dead-simple high concepts and mixed in excessive violence, quippy protagonists, and a patina of “cool” cynicism—which is really just another phrase for naïve posturing—you could sell a hell of a lot more comics. It helped that Millar speaks fluent Hype, so he can pass off his stories (which are more like the distilliations of a handful of clichés) as something wild and new and original, and way, way too many journalists believe it.
Thus: Kick-Ass, which in comic book form takes the fairly fun (if profoundly unoriginal) premise of a teenage kid putting on a superhero costume to fight crime, runs it through the ultra-violence machine (courtesy of legendary comic artist John Romita Jr.) and nails himself a movie adaptation, because the damn thing might as well have been titled HELLO HOLLYWOOD I AM READY FOR YOUR CHECK.
So no, I don’t think terribly much of the man, the book, or consequently the movie adaptation. Yes, it’s directed by Matthew Vaughn, who directed the wonderful Layer Cake. I submit to you that Vaughn then went on to direct Stardust, which was one of the more joyless and forced ways I’ve spent 127 minutes. I also submit that Jane Goldman, who adapted Stardust for the screen, also adapted Kick-Ass. If Kick-Ass is anything but empty posturing (which a certain segment will be over the moon about, because LOL HITGIRL!), I’ll be amazed.
DW: When I see trailers like this, I’m always reminded of Snakes on a Plane, another movie that was hyped to hell and back online and was much beloved of nerds, and that died a quick and merciful death in theaters because it was, frankly, shit that existed only to pander to nerds. This gives off the same vibe, right down to casting people like Nicholas Cage and Christopher Mintz-Plasse because of their “ironic” appeal or recognizability from other films that went over well with audiences eager to be condescended to.
I suspect this will do okay, but only okay. If they can avoid reminding people that this is from the same man who is ultimately responsible for unleashing Wanted on theaters, the audience that just loves to see cinematic violence alone will probably make them some money.
KL: This looks like a hoot and a half, and not just because I wrote a short story just like it back in junior high. Richard Corliss of Time is quoted as using the word “zeitgeist,” and that sounds about right. How else to describe a movie that takes the personalization of marketing to its logical (yet charmingly old-fashioned) extreme?
And I like David Duchovny. Rather a lot, actually. He can be wooden, sure, but he’s got an easy-going charisma and a wicked-dry sense of humor, which is exactly what you need to carry both his in-movie role and the larger one. I’ve never been convinced Demi Moore (who has not quite shaken her perpetual deer-in-headlights gaze) needs to be in any movie ever, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
DW: The literalizing (so to speak) up the “keeping up with the Joneses” idiom is a clever twist, and it feels like it’s been forever since we’ve seen a smart satire of contemporary business and social attitudes. That part I’m surprisingly enthusiastic about, too (with the exception of the presence of Demi Moore, who has just never really worked for me in any of her films that I’ve seen).
What I’m nervous about is the implication that those satiric elements are going to be undercut by a seemingly “safer” rom-com formula, where Duchovny and Moore are antagonistic co-workers thrown together who eventually succumb to their mutual attraction. There’s nothing wrong with a film like that, in and of itself, but I don’t like the idea of it seeping into the takedown of corporate marketing and advertising that is the film I want to see.
KL: Speaking of comic book movies… The Losers is based on Andy Diggle and Jock’s update of an old DC Comics property about a group of special ops types who get betrayed by the CIA and decide to extract a little revenge. It was a fun action comic with lots of bravado, wit, socio-political awareness and genuine oh-wow action sequences. In the world of film, this sounds like pretty standard stuff, but in superhero-dominated comics it was an abnormality; the series barely registered in sales despite being one of the most “mainstream” offerings on the stands. It’s a shame when a good comic dies young.
The film adaptation has an interesting approach to casting (Idris Elba! Chris Evans! Zoe Saldana!) and the filmmakers seem to have a pretty solid grip on why this kind of action movie should be made. In a world of grim-n-gritty Bourne-style action movies, studios forget that a lot of people watch action movies to have a good time. It helps if the plotting isn’t stupid as hell, and if The Losers stays true to its source on that matter, we’re in good hands.
DW: Like Ken, I was a big fan of the comic this is based on. I still like to point it out from time to time as an example of what comic fans say they want (a smartly-written, well-drawn comic with a unique voice and subject matter that appeals to a broader audience than the usual man-children) and what they actually buy (about twenty different X-Men titles a month) are vastly different.
So what we’ve got here is strong source material, unbelievably good casting, and what appears to be a stylish action-thriller that isn’t afraid to be at least slightly silly. That’s exactly the kind of big, loud movie I want to see.
That there’s a good chance of seeing some Chris Evans skin here is merely the icing on the cake.
DW: Normally I’d be all for a film about Michael Caine being a bad-ass vigilante. But something about this feels really off. I’m sure an old man killing teenagers appeals to a certain audience, one that’s ripe to blame “kids these days” and specifically poor and/or minority kids for all of society’s ills, but I’d have hoped that that sort of fear-mongering, crypto-fascist storytelling had gone out when the Death Wish and Dirty Harry films stopped getting made. It feels like a particularly paranoid, right-wing revenge fantasy, to be blunt.
And then I see praise for the film from the Daily Mail in the trailer and yeah, all my doubts feel like they’ve been confirmed.
KL: There seems to be a lot of free-floating Impotent White Rage out there, and I’d contend this inspires the yearly cycle on which we get revenge-fantasy flicks starring currently or once-respectable actors (Jodie Foster, Kevin Bacon, Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson). Some small part of me—that eternal optimist, the thing Dorian wisely let die out—assumes, every single time, that there’s a further dimension to this thuddingly simple premise. “Surely,” I say, “we’re not just revisiting this again.”
But then we probably are. How much do you enjoy Michael Caine? How badly are you hoping he’s rekindling some of that Jack Carter magic? The answers to these questions will determine your interest level. I think I’ll just rent Get Carter again.
KL: If you watch the outtakes on the DVD of The Rock, you’ll see Ed Harris isn’t really acting in the first few seconds of this trailer.
Joking aside, this is a touching story, and I don’t doubt the Millers’ sincerity in wanting to bring the story of their fathers’ life to the world. But if I’m being honest, I think I’d be rather much more interested in a documentary about the making of this movie than in the movie itself. Here are twin brothers who had an obviously rocky relationship with their father, and now they’re behind the camera, attempting to recreate that man in another actor—a famous and well-respected four-time Oscar nominee, at that.
What’s that process like? Is it emotionally draining, numbing, or invigorating? How do you draw the line between truth and nostalgia? Do you even consider if you’re too close to tell the story truthfully, or does being that close mean you’re the only ones who can tell the story truthfully?
Make that movie, and I’ll watch it.
DW: Yeah, I’m in a pretty similar state of mind. The sincerity pours off that trailer, at least in the second half, when it’s the actual people talking directly to the audience. That first half, though…I hesitate to use the term “clichéd” because we’re talking about real things that happened to real people, but so many of the little moments in that trailer just remind me of Oscar-baiting “based on a true story” moments in other films. I’ve no doubt that the Miller brothers have put their heart and soul into this project, and they’ve certainly attracted some stellar people to it, which is pretty compelling in and of itself. But as horrible as it may sound, I’m just not sure the tragedy of their father’s life is as unique a story as they seem to feel it is.