In a World for August, 2010
As summer winds down to August, all those movies that studios either couldn’t make sense of or otherwise couldn’t cut it get unleashed on the public. Consequently August is a kind of limbo; most of the releases have the hallmark of a blockbuster but aren’t quite “award season” material. They’re somewhere in between. As with February, some serious gems can slip in under the radar. But there’s a lot of chaff to get through to find that wheat.
Bureau Chiefs Dorian Wright and Ken Lowery take a look at the upcoming August releases and find it a pretty schizophrenic bunch.
KL: I tend to run real hot or cold on Adam McKay as a writer and director. I think Anchorman is possibly the strongest comedy he or Will Ferrell has ever done, but everything after that—at least the stuff produced for the big screen and not Funny or Die—has been real hit or miss. Talladega Nights is amusing but I can take it or leave it, and even after my opinion of Step Brothers improved, I feel the same way.
This could be different. I think Mark Wahlberg is actually pretty solid as a comedic actor, and Will Ferrell doing the whitebread thing also has some mileage to it. I like the gags that poke at buddy-cop-action-movie conceits, but self-awareness aside, this does sorta seem like yet another melding of comedy with insane action to double-dip on your audiences, a la Knight and Day, Date Night, et cetera. Pretty on the fence here.
DW: I usually like Mark Wahlberg too, though as you say, more as a comedic actor. When he’s trying to do a serious role I can’t help but think “take your shirt off already and give the audience what they want.” Ferrell I can’t make up my mind whether I’m done with his films or not. I enjoyed them, but then he entered that long stretch where it felt like he was making the same movie over and over. This seems different, at least to some degree, from his usual schtick, so I’m willing to give it a shot. Mostly because, apart from anything else, I like the conceit here. I like the idea of two guys trying to live up to the action-movie hero-cop expectations with two living embodiments of that archetype standing in their way. I may be setting myself up for disappointment, as a premise like that so rarely seems to live up to its promise, but we’ll see.
DW: It’s kind of cute that the producers of these films think that the plot actually matters. People don’t watch these films for the stories, they watch them for the visuals. The stories are just a necessary evil to bridge dance scenes. Looking at this, I’m starting to get the idea that, this time, the creators realize that, as there’s really no indication of any kind of plot other than the apparently obligatory “lovers separated by class” story.
I’m not honestly interested enough in the genre to want to see the film, but I do find myself curious at the niche they’re filling. These are big, spectacle, event-style films, but they’re not CGI-fests, all the visuals are just things that humans can do. I don’t want to say that movies in this genre are the feminine equivalent of your summer sci-fi film, but I’m leaning towards that as being a component.
The other thing that strikes me about this film is the use of color and light. The last film I can think of that actually used color and light as elements of “world-building” the way this does was Speed Racer. Which just brings me back to thinking about the market films like this are trying to tap.
KL: The thing about 3D the first time they tried it is that it belonged at least as much to trashy fare as it did to spectacles. So I think this, in a weird sort of way, actually works; it’s a lowest common denominator kind of movie but it actually displays real human skill, versus, as you point out, CGI wizardry. 3D glasses make my eyes hurt and I’m allergic to jacked-up ticket prices, but I’d be more inclined to see this over the half-dozen shovelware 3D “epic” kids movies that’re coming out this year.
KL: Uh, hm. I have an unironic love for movies like Predator, The Last Action Hero, Demolition Man, and even, on a good day, Commando. They’re big hyper-masculine relics of the ‘80s for the most part, some with greater awareness of what they are than others, but they’re fun movies. And I can get behind the macho charisma of most of this cast.
I’d feel better if Stallone weren’t such a klutzy writer and director. Rocky Balboa met and exceeded the daily FDA recommended intake of schmaltz and Rambo was problematic. (OK, another one: I did like Cliffhanger.) The amount of pleasure I can get out of The Expendables depends entirely on whether it wants to be fun badass or “cool” badass. Early on in the movie’s publicity campaign I was optimistic. Now, I’m a lot less so.
DW: Every time I’ve seen one of these trailers play out here, there’s been a big cheer from the audience every time one of these meaty ’80s action guys appears on screen for the first time. And then Schwarzenegger appears and the groans are deafening. Not that I expect the political mood of coastal Californians to be a huge factor in the final box office, but I thought it was interesting.
I suspect that nostalgia factor of this will give it decent sales and word of mouth, but I can’t help but feel that, as a genre, action movies have really moved on from the time when most of these guys were in their hey-day. The inclusion of Jet Li and Jason Statham seems like an acknowledgement of that, as they are lithe, athletic guys who actually give violence a sort of poeticism, not slabs of meat spouting one-liners.
KL: I’m going to be real with you: I tried to read the first volume of Scott Pilgrim on three separate occasions and it never took. I didn’t find Scott cute or relatable; I found him immature and kind of gross. (Now I think I “get” it a bit more; in the age of relentless status updates, everyone tries—humorously or not—to recast the most mundane aspects of their lives as something epic.)
But I like these trailers. Mostly because (as I’ve said elsewhere) I have a craving for novelty in big movie releases, a craving that sometimes takes me into unhealthy spaces. Mostly I’m just glad that Edgar Wright decided not to water anything down and just straight-up did fucking Scott Pilgrim right there on the big screen. I think that takes more guts than just doing an animated feature, and I respect guts.
DW: I’m not the target audience for this. I read a few pages of the original graphic novel when it was released and very quickly came to the realization that it was “not for me.” The fans of the series love it in an extremely vocal way, and more power to them (though please stop trying to convince me that my lack of interest is a sign of moral retardation on my part), but more nuanced reviewers have left me with the impression that, as a body of work, it is masterful at giving its target audience exactly what they want, to the point that we can probably go ahead and call it “pandering,” and that I would find the work extremely problematic.
Coupled with my growing weariness with Edgar Wright and his work and the utter, visceral, irrational loathing I feel for Michael Cera whenever I see his image, it’s safe to say that I don’t have high expectations for the two of them teaming up to present a film version of the comics.
And then I actually sit down and watch the trailer, and yeah, that’s definitely an Edgar Wright adaptation of Scott Pilgrim comics with Michael Cera.
DW: I usually find myself exasperated with films like this. It’s aspirational affirmation for women, and the only thing that immediately differentiates it from things like Sex and the City is that it’s not materialistic. It does, though, perpetuate this idea that “the other” is more in tune with spirituality or nature or whatever the protagonist feels is unbalanced in her life than her own culture is. I find that really problematic, not to mention condescending in its attitude towards other cultures. Films like this don’t value those cultures on their own merits, but for their ability to “fix” Americans and their problems. It aggravates me.
KL: My doctor no longer allows me to watch Julia Roberts movies (he keeps talking about something called a “rage coma”), so I won’t be heading into the theaters for this one. I can say my wife found the book to be as uninspiring and aggravating as you feel this movie will be, so!
DW: The Studio Ghibli films are some of the most gorgeous animated films produced. You just have to pretend not to notice that most of them follow a pretty predictable formula. And that you haven’t noticed that their last couple of films haven’t been very good. It’s an adaptation, though the studio isn’t particularly known for the faithfulness of their adaptations, but maybe having the spine of someone else’s plot will help on the story aspects. And it’s an explicit fantasy film, which I tend to think is the studio’s strong suit, but that’s still no guarantee of a better result.
But it is so very pretty, and a fantasy world that’s visually based on native South American cultures is novel enough that I’m going to want to see it anyway.
I do find myself wondering at the shortness of the trailer and its narrated nature. We know the film is going to be dubbed for the theatrical release, but adopting the usual markers of “serious foreign film” in the trailers makes me wonder how they’re pitching the marketing money.
KL: Oh man, a world where humans and dragons were one! I have definitely not seen that in at least two months!
OK, maybe that was unfair. But Dorian, you put your finger on a couple things that bothered me that I was unable to name. For one, the quality of Ghibli pictures—or perhaps it’s just my interest level—has waned precariously ever since Spirited Away. (Which I quite enjoyed.) The last one I saw, Ponyo, I saw on assignment. It was very pretty but it was definitely not for adults. So I feel like my opinion on that movie would be a moot point.
I don’t know why this trailer is narrated, but Disney has had kind of a heavy hand in trailer editing lately. The Princess and the Frog’s trailer spent the first half of it telling us how fucking awesome and epic and historical and monumental this new movie was going to be, and I suppose they’re doing the same thing here. Which is weird, as I see a list of dubbed voice actors right there under the trailer. Why not just let their dialogue tell the story?
DW: Film icons slumming! Unnecessary use of an obnoxious gimmick! Disrespectful teens bearing a suspicious resemblance to the film’s market getting killed in nasty and inventive ways! On the one hand, I kind of admire the filmmakers for hewing so close to the ’80s horror cheapie formula. On the other, it’s the ’80s horror cheapie formula and they want us to pay $12 to see it, knowing full well that there are dozens of these things available on streaming services like Netflix.
Every once in awhile, when I’m bored, I’ll make notes on themes in horror films, and why I think they work or don’t. Generally, I find I’m pretty down on the “nature gone wrong” films. I just don’t find animals, even prehistoric or mutant animals, to have quite the gravitas as a supernatural or human “monster” has. It’s the lack of motive or direction, I think. It’s hard to find a fish doing what a fish does all that terrifying. Film-makers have to be very careful when using animals as monsters to avoid camp, or else they have to just embrace it. Because, frankly, animals as monsters almost always come off a bit silly.
Which is a long and indirect way of saying that, if this turns out to embrace the camp, it might be worth a rental, or at least a download via a streaming service. If not, well…at least we’ve got 2025’s Piranha 4D to look forward to.
KL: Like I said above, 3D belongs to trash cinema at least as much as it belongs to any other kind, so I’m glad stuff like this is happening.
However, this is most definitely trash cinema, and I should be honest here: I’ve never had much of an “ironic appreciation” gene. I do not like things because they are terrible; if a thing is terrible, I just think it’s terrible. At the least, I need a heavy filter—think Mystery Science Theater 3000—to get through that stuff. Unless Piranha 3D is unusually well done—and I do not think the phrase “unusually well done” has been applied to any made-for-3D movie since Coraline—I will spend my $12 on a good meal.
KL: So that is definitely the entire movie outlined in the trailer, right there. Bully, mentor, wacky sidekick friend, gold digger, friend who should be the real love interest… I hit BINGO about halfway through.
I’m sure it’ll be OK in a forgettable way. And maybe it’s Idiocracy or Everybody Hates Chris, but I’m going to laugh any time Terry Crews is on screen. Still, the only mystery here is what ultimately happens with the money… and the inspirational friend-who-should-be-the-love-interest spells that out, too. Oh well.
DW: Yeah, as you say, the trailer spells out pretty much every detail of the film, including what looks to be the resolution, a tactic which I always suspect is a sign of a film that doesn’t have much in the way of plot or story to go on. But then, neither of us exactly in the target market for this film, so I’m willing to concede that the intended audience may be getting more out of it than I might be.
KL: The Exorcist casts such a long shadow over the horror genre that any movie about demonic possession will inevitably be viewed through its prism. The Last Exorcism seems aware of that, and adds a few nice twists: the modern conceit of being a documentary or “found footage” a la Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity, along with some of that spooky Southern flavor that gives good horror a nice tang. Could be good; exorcism movies have a special hold over me, for reasons this trailer make explicit: an innocent person wholly subsumed by evil they did not earn or deserve.
Someone smarter and better-versed than me: who are Huck Botko, Andrew Gurland and Daniel Stamm? They’re right there on the promotional material as if they’re a big deal, but I’ve never heard of anything they’ve done.
DW: As near as I can tell, the gentlemen you ask about have done…not very much, and nothing very notable.
I don’t like the faux-documentary approach to horror films at all. I’ve seen too many where that approach was used to cover the lack of a budget or because someone thought shaky cameras pointed at something in the darkness is scary in and of itself. And it feels like we’ve had a LOT of exorcism themed horror films in the last few years, as well. I don’t think the sub-genre is at the tipping point yet where the devil has stopped being scary, but it feels to me that ultimate evil is starting to be in as much danger of over-use and over-exposure as vampires and zombies are now.
In other words, I’m pretty confident that I can skip this one and not feel like I’m missing anything.
DW: I’ve yet to be impressed with anything that I’ve seen from Neil Marshall. It just feels a little too calculated to me, I suppose. There’s nothing specific, just something vague there that I find off-putting.
Which is a shame, because otherwise I might find myself interested in a Romans vs. Celts action movie. There are hints here of something a little more ambitious going on, in a political metaphor sort of way, but it’s not clear if Marshall is attempting to use Rome’s occupation of Britain as a metaphor for any other world powers occupying another country or if he’s using the suggestion of corruption within the Roman war-machine as, well, a metaphor for corruption in a contemporary war-machine. Or maybe none of that is actually in the film and it’s just really skillful editing on the part of the people who put together the trailer in an attempt to make the film look deeper than it might actually be.
KL: I loved, loved, loved Doomsday, because it was a big crazy joke and a mash-up of everything from John Carpenter’s Escape movies to Lord of the Rings. Best of all, the execution lived up to the ambition; it was just entertaining as hell, and for me (and precious few others, I’ll admit), it totally worked.
But no, I don’t think he’s a terribly deep filmmaker. Not that that’s a problem for me. This looks in some ways just as bananas as Doomsday; Ukranian actress/model Olga Kurylenko as a badass Celt manhunter? Sure, why not!
This is also a period that’s woefully neglected in modern filmmaking; I suppose everyone saw Gladiator and thought anything that had to do with Romans had to be epic, Best Picture-baiting material. Good on Marshall for finding the fun, brutal potential.
KL: There is not an original thought to be found in the movie’s premise (totes badass bank robber crew takes on One Last Job; will it be their last?) and despite liking Idris Elba, Paul Walker and Zoe Saldana, the presence of Hayden Christensen in just about anything that isn’t Shattered Glass is a turd in the punch bowl. The parkour stuff looks neat, at least.
I don’t know where my line is when it comes to depicting hyper-competence on the big screen. I can really get behind how guys like David Mamet and Michael Mann show it; I could watch Spartan and Heat forever. But when you throw in that music video gloss and the impossible stunt work, my interest meter goes from green to zero like that. Pass.
DW: Actually, I take back my earlier comments. I’d rather watch ’80s meatheads spew one-liners than something as cold and slick and lifeless as this. As “by the numbers” as those ’80s action films were, this is the modern equivalent of an action movie that is just checking off al the required plot and stunt elements and assembling them into something that the studio hopes is viewable. Or, if not viewable, at least has a good couple of days of box office before word of mouth kills it.