Folks, let’s be real: this summer pretty well sucks. Not only is general quality of movies quite low, but movie-goers are noticing–and across the board, opening weekends just ain’t what they used to be… and no matter how much the studios stuff every month with a new 3D release, the higher ticket prices are just turning people off.
And it is another summer stuffed with sequels, but as A.O. Scott pointed out in The New York Times, that’s certainly nothing new. What does seem new, however, is the sheer volume of remakes and adaptations that accompany the sequels, sending the loud-and-clear message that new ideas are no longer welcome in Hollywood.
Anyway. Bureau Chiefs Ken Lowery and Dorian Wright take a look at what’s coming up in the month of July.
DW: I attempted to watch an episode of the animated series this is based on, and very quickly came to the conclusion that it is “not for me.” So I didn’t really pay much attention to the news about the film, other than to note the online controversy that erupted when white actors were cast as characters that fans of the cartoon felt were supposed to be Asian or Inuit. Which is not to say that online fandom is a paradise of reasoned discourse, polite debate, and middle-of-the-road opinions, but when the first news about a film is the alienation of a portion of the fanbase … well, that’s interesting.
At the same time, though, I find myself a little bit curious about the film. I’m pretty much done with M. Night Shyamalan myself, but he’s doing a big, stupidly big, effects-heavy film here, but more importantly, he’s working off someone else’s story. There are some directors/screenwriters who, when you see their early works you can detect the promises of quality, but they become so caught up in being the auteur that they never really overcome the weaknesses in their own writing or direction. I’d be willing to say that this pretty much what happened with Shyamalan, whose first two films were muddled, if interesting, supernatural dramas, but whose later films displayed a notable lack of internal logic or consistency. It’s possible that by adapting a narrative from someone else into his own style that Shyamalan might grow as a film-maker and start making interesting films again.
Of course it’s a moot point for me, because even if he does, the premise of the film still sounds like a bad ‘80s fantasy novel tetraology?
KL: It does. I have a lot of friends who swear by the series, and once upon a time I was right there with the people saying M. Night Shyamalan could be the next Spielberg. This’ll get nice solid box office for being a fantasy movie with a big-name (if diminishing) director that’s about kids being awesome, so you’ll get whole families in there alongside the nerd couples. But for anyone not already entrenched in the mythology of the show, will any of it look like anything but, well, a bad ‘80s fantasy novel series?
KL: The press describes this as a “bold new chapter” in the Predator franchise, but really it’s about a bunch of killers and soldiers taken to a “game preserve” world to be hunted by Predators. So basically it’s Predator but with more Predators and presumably only one way off the planet that the surviving cast members will be racing toward in the third act of this movie. That isn’t really bold or new—those words have not applied to the franchise since the second one, which at least gave us a new kind of environment—but will it at least be entertaining?
The truth is I don’t know. I mean the obvious answer is “no,” and that seems a safe bet, but there’s just enough of a fun cast here that maybe it’ll fire the ol’ synapses in a pleasing fashion. Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins (recently so damn good in Justified), Laurence Fishburne. The optimist in me says hey, maybe it’s a bloody good time, but the realist says no, this’ll be a piece of shit. That everything about it smacks of being an “also-ran” summer title that’s somehow getting a pretty prominent July position feels weird to me.
DW: I suppose if this does well we’ll have Predator Cubed to look forward to? No?
I just don’t see the point in this, unless it was a dream project for Robert Rodriguez to essentially re-make the original film and the studio went ahead and greenlit it just to keep him happy. I’m sure there’s enough of a residual fanbase for the property that this will do okay, especially if there are no other gory action films playing in theaters when this opens, but I really can’t imagine this doing any better than just “okay.” And yeah, while the cast is pretty good, none of them are actually people I want to see in the fifth outing for a nearly twenty-five year old, second tier action movie property.
KL: Apparently the thing you have to do to be able to make a big-budget movie with an original script is make something like $1.4 billion with the Batman franchise first. And so Christopher Nolan remains one of the last filmmakers standing in the arena of big filmmakers filming big ideas and daring to use genre tropes to explore something other than the most transparent societal analogues or just.. you know.. cool ways to shoot guys with laser guns.
Inception has also been in a good model in how to market your big summer movie with a sense of mystery. I had no damn idea what was going on in the first trailer but I was hooked anyway, and the second one spells out the concept well enough—an organization that infiltrates people’s dreams to learn their secrets—to hook you. Or, well, at least me. I called “Dibs” on this screening like two months ago, that’s how much I want to see it.
DW: Nolan is one of those very few filmmakers of the current generation who has shown that he can do emotionally mature, adult story-telling and crowd-pleasing spectacle at the same time, so I’m very curious to see what he does with a big, special effects heavy sci-fi epic with a big name cast. The plot is very reminiscent of something out of a Phillip K. Dick novel, only without the studio meddling that seems to destroy almost every other attempt to adapt an actual Dick book.
I suppose if there is a potential problem here it’s that, well … this hasn’t been a good few years for big spectacle type films to have good stories. Hell, I would have settled for coherent stories, or even interesting stories. I’m afraid audiences might be getting used to having their expectations built up, only to be let down by the final product. I have trust in Nolan, I suspect that this will be the film that bucks that trend. But audiences have been surprisingly unpredictable lately, and this is, as you said, a totally original premise and world Nolan is creating here, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that audiences are shying away from those. I want it to be a good film and to do well, but I just don’t know how anyone else is going to respond to it.
KL: I actually don’t mind Nicolas Cage so much, even though I know right now he’s basically taking every job that comes his way to pay off his many, many debts. His controlled-crazy thing seems to work for the concept, or so the trailers tell me, but who knows how the final product will turn out.
OK, I’ll try to guess: Jay Baruchel’s going to play the apprentice, who seems hapless and unlikely but will in fact be the greatest sorcerer the world has ever known if only Cage’s enemies can first be vanquished blah blah blah. Magic is an inherently interesting concept and a good writer can have a lot of fun coming up with their own conceptions of how it—and by extension, the world—works, but I have a feeling we’re not going to be getting much of that here. I will be surprised—pleasantly—if the screenwriters do more than just run this one through the Fantasy Franchise Launch Movie Generator.
DW: Yeah, there’s nothing about the trailers that suggest that this is going to rise above the level of a slightly more frantic Harry Potter film, and since all the attempts to compete with that franchise seem to have fallen flat, it’s probably fair to not hold out much hope for this one. In contrast to those other attempts to launch a fantasy film franchise, this at least looks like it has some amount of wit, if not originality, going on. Sometimes doing the predicatable well and entertainingly can make up for a lack of originality. And, if nothing else, most of Disney’s live-action films lately have been watchable, so there’s a very good chance that this could be an entertaining diversion.
This is another one of those films, though, where my actual reaction to the trailers is somewhat unimportant, as I’m already on the hook to see it, given the husband’s love for the entire “ordinary person discovers they are magic” genre. The sacrifices we make to ensure a happy home…
DW: I was wondering if film-makers were ever going to go back to the Mazes and Monsters well for plot ideas…
That’s probably a gross over-simplification of the actual plot, but the tone of the trailer certainly exudes that same breathless “these people are doing something weird, so there must be something wrong with them” attitude the permeated so much of the early ’80s hysteria over role-playing games. Despite that, I found myself wanting to be excited about the film, as early reviews from festival screenings suggested that it was a compelling thriller with an original setting. And then I was frustrated, because what this trailer suggests is a fairly standard “boy rescues girlfriend from weirdoes” revenge film. And oh look, there’s even an implied rape right there in the trailer. No, no, movie-makers, that’s not an insultingly and creepily over-used plot device at all. Really.
KL: For the first three-fourths of the trailer I was thinking, “Sure, or you could just go watch Monster Camp,” a surprisingly fascinating documentary about the group dynamics of live-action role players that is, oh by the way, on Netflix Watch Instantly right now.
But then it gets all crazy Lord of the Flies and, you know, it’s a credit to the filmmakers (or possibly just whoever edited the trailer) that I thought this was some Office-esque satire at first, so the sudden turn to thriller catches my eye in an unexpected way. Could be I’m a sucker for “civilizing forces are a thin veneer over the Beast That Is Man” stuff, but I’m intrigued.
KL: First time I saw this trailer I was baffled. I couldn’t quite figure out what the hell this thing was about, and I was a little put off by Steve Carell ditching his more measured absurdities in favor of just being a dumb crazy asshole. That this was a comedy starring Carell and Paul Rudd that was being directed by Jay Roach—who has never directed anything but the safest of comedies—and not some other, more interesting selection, did not do it any favors.
I think I get the concept now, and I like plenty of the players, but I cannot get around the fact that this is one seriously weak-ass premise for a comedy. People go to dinner with losers and then make fun of them! I have a feeling we’ll be asked to laugh at the schmucks and also to dislike the people who do, which is a nice way to have it both ways.
I don’t know, maybe Roach and Co. are pulling a Pixar and not telling us what the second half of the movie will be, but I have my doubts. Writers David Guion and Michael Handelman have only previously written The Ex. Now if you’re like me, you hear “The Ex” and then try to sort out which third-generation-Xerox-copy of There’s Something About Mary from a few years ago that is, and which interchangeable players were in it.
DW: Man, I hope Paul Rudd’s character learns an important lesson about how it’s wrong to exploit people in order to advance your own career, and that friendship is more important than…oh, hell, I can’t even complete the sentence. I’ve got a lot of patience for Paul Rudd films, but I’ve got absolutely no desire to see this. It just looks painfully flat toned in its efforts to get us to laugh at the people playing the roles of the titular “Schmucks” and it’s just too much lampshaded “wackiness” to be enjoyable.
I’ve heard good things about the French film this is based on, but I’ve also heard that that film goes to a darker place, with much more unlikeable characters than are suggested here. The French seem to be able to get away with that, but American audiences, I suspect, don’t want to see a film where Paul Rudd is a philandering asshole whose life is ruined because Steve Carell is functionally retarded. Well, I’d want to see that film, because Rudd plays an asshole really well, but I suspect not many other people would.
DW: We keep getting told that female-focused action films don’t make money. But then, I’m hard-pressed to think of any female-focused action films that actually use the same plots and formulas as action films with male leads. This looks like you could cast Matt Damon in Angelina Jolie’s role and still get the same basic film, from beginning to end. (Well, you’d probably have to have him searching for his missing wife instead of his missing husband, because something tells me that no major studio is going to bankroll a big expensive spy action film with an A-List lead playing a gay hero.)
And that’s probably the biggest problem with this film, that it really is just a gender-swapped version of any other of a number of action films. It’s the only unique hook that the film has got. Everything else about it looks fairly by-the-numbers.
Which has never been an impediment to an action film making an obscene amount of money in the past, of course.
KL: As it turns out, this movie was originally written with a male lead in mind, and Tom Cruise circled the project before backing out. A rewrite made the lead female, and then Angelina Jolie signed on, and here we are.
Dorian, what you say about the proceedings in the trailer is pretty well on the mark. To me, the story here is director Phillip Noyce, who has done everything from over-styled hack work (Sliver, The Bone Collector with Jolie) to tense thrillers (Dead Calm) to quiet and profound spy dramas (The Quiet American). This being a major tent pole movie with the surefire female box office magnet in the lead tells me this will lean more toward Noyce’s hack work, perhaps at the studio’s behest. But hey, it’s at least nice to see a dramatic spy-action film in a summer of Knight and Day clones.
DW: It’s strangely comforting to know that if a witch curses you, and you become hideously scarred and deformed, you will still manage to retain perfect six-pack abs. I’m reminded a little bit of the trailers for the Twilight films here, mostly things like the lighting, though the male lead being an over-protective stalker feels lifted from there as well, right down to the female lead somehow seeing that as a desirable trait. I’m not sure if it’s transplanting the “Beauty and the Beast” story to a modern setting or telling the story from the “Beast’s” perspective that’s doing it, but the trailer seems to be highlighting the kind of messed up moral of the story; that you can be a selfish asshole, but as long as you play nice with a girl for a little while, the consequences of being a prick to everyone around you will be undone.
KL: For far too long, teenage boys, the psychology behind what movies saw the light of day and got the biggest marketing pushes was fixated on pleasing you and only you. We all knew that someday there would be a reckoning.
KL: Most documentary filmmakers went the Michael Moore route in the massive wake of Bowling For Columbine, and I’m all for making documentaries lively and involving affairs. But for my money, I wish more people had seen American Splendor, and further I wish just about every documentary about a modern subject would take that route, blending reminiscences and archival footage with dramatized performances and sometimes surrealist comic art. The resulting blend was a potent and lively mix which made a true story out of a life. Harvey Pekar’s work lends itself to that kind of fact/fiction blurring, but every documentary could benefit from that deep and esoteric grasp of the material.
All of which is me saying that I absolutely love directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who turn my attention to The Extra Man from “mild” to “rapt.” OK, so The Nanny Diaries was no great shakes, but here I see something a little less rote and pre-ordained than Diaries. Oh I’m sure Dano’s character will get the girl yadda yadda yadda, but the journey looks a pleasant one.
DW: Oh, the self-aware quirkiness! I’m not sure I’d be able to handle a full-length film that asks me to consider the obnoxious personality traits on display by virtually every character here as somehow endearing. I was feeling a bit tired of it all by the end of the trailer. And that’s speaking as someone who enjoys Kevin Kline’s work and actually wants to see him in a good comedy again. But the sense I’m getting is of a film that’s just trying too hard to appeal to that indie comedy crowd, a film that’s a little too satisfied with itself.
DW: Jim Carrey’s films have gone to the “lol, fags” well a little too often in the past for me to have much hope for this, even with Ewan McGregor, who has played gay roles non-offensively several times, playing opposite him. That the international trailer here suggests that Carrey’s character is somehow turned gay as the result of a head injury, becomes a gaudy gay stereotype, and then becomes a criminal, as if gay to criminal is some sort of natural progression, doesn’t do much to persuade me from the suspicion that this is yet another film for straight audiences in which the mere existence of gay men is considered enough of a joke to keep people in their seats for ninety minutes, no matter how many shots of naked Carey thrusting into day players or McGregor and Carrey kissing in silhouette they include. About the only remote glimmer of hope for the film rests with McGregor, who is the only character in these scenes reacting in a believable manner. In the few scenes we see of him with Carrey, McGregor is acting like an actual human being, while Carrey is hamming it up, desperate to be the funny one.
There’s a real chance, then, that Carrey’s presence is the real problem with the film. He’s being out acted by the second billed role and his audience wants to see wild, crazy antics and easy to understand stereotypes. With another actor in Carrey’s role, we might get a very different film, and possibly a better one.
KL: Then again, Carrey’s goofier work hasn’t been a draw in quite a long time—his days of plastic-faced yuckery are gathering dust while comedies these days aim more toward the heartfelt or crude. (Or both, I suppose.) That allows him to branch out and, if nothing else, go for something outside his usual shticks to gather some of the attention he’s lost. It could be worse: he could be doing Grown Ups.
And I like him in those unanticipated roles. He quite simply was Andy Kaufman in Man On the Moon, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is, to me, the final chapter on the romantic comedy and a demonstration on how good that genre could be if it bothered to try. If McGregor really is the saving grace here, then shouldn’t his presence be indication enough that the movie’s worth being in?