And now we tread headlong into the limbo between summer blockbuster season and Oscar season (with a quick stop over in Horror Town in late October). What do September’s offerings have in common? Not a whole lot: there’s some serious highbrow stuff alongside lower-end fare, horror films and biopics and even a bit of Mexploitation.
No, the only thing September’s releases have in common are maddeningly non-specific titles that make it hard to quickly search for relevant images on Google.
KL: George Clooney remains one of the true “stars” left in Hollywood, and sure enough I’ll see just about anything he’s headlining. Pedigree is what The American has going for it: Clooney and screenwriter Rowan Joffe, who wrote me-favorite 28 Weeks Later.
On paper, the whole thing looks kind of pedestrian: American hitman abroad, one last job, tempting fate by seeking a normal life, love interest, and so on. We’ve seen all that before, but in these kinds of stories it’s all in the execution, because we’ve seen all its component pieces before. I’ll be there.
DW: The thing that strikes me is that, yes, we have seen pretty much all of these elements before, often in pretty much this exact same configuration, and yet watching the trailers, very little of the story is sketched out. The film is pushing the mystery and the moral ambiguity of the situation, and the appeal of Clooney in these roles as a “thoughtful” action hero type. It’s a good approach to take, but it comes just shy of really selling me on the picture. Which is frustrating, because the style of it, and the presence of Clooney, makes me want to look forward to the film, but I find myself sitting there and thinking “and?” throughout the trailer.
DW: It’s like the Mexsploitation fever-dreams of my youth brought to life.
Robert Rodriguez does stripped-down action movies very well. He usually strikes the right balance of spectacle and over-the-top ridiculousness that serves the genre well. And that looks like what we have here: a bunch of actors and actresses we like, doing insanely improbably badass things in service to a rather typical for an action film revenge story. It’s a loud, dumb action movie, but with enough variation on the standard tropes, and just barely enough variation at that, to pass successfully as an original composition.
KL: I run real hot or real cold on Rodriguez movies. From Dusk till Dawn is hands-down one of the most entertaining movies I have ever seen; it was Grindhouse ten years before Grindhouse, and way, way better. But the rest of his stuff seems less like movies and more like feature-length trailers: a bunch of stuff happens and some passably witty dialogue is spoken, but ultimately it’s the cinematic equivalent of eating Chinese food.
I have actually seen the movie, and I was not a big fan. Liking this movie will depend on how much you like the general structure of Once Upon a Time in Mexico with the kind of gore in the aforementioned Dawn. Ultimate it’s just not enough for me to laugh at throwbackism.
KL: The reason this franchise keeps going is the reason the Saw franchise keeps going: they make money. This seems like an odd duck to keep coming back to life (zombie jokes lol), but hey, at least it consistently casts women in its lead roles.
I admit: I liked the first movie, cheesy as it could be. This was before the current glut of zombie movies, when making such a thing in modern times was still novel. It also gave us a lot of gore and some corny action, and hey, ain’t nothing wrong with that. The second one was an incoherent mess, and the third had some nifty sequences but didn’t live up to the premise promised us in the trailers. This one… I don’t even know anymore. Does the mythology matter? Are there hardcore fans out there who know every twist and turn of the movie franchise?
I suspect not. Maybe this franchise more closely resembles the Bond movies than other, more direct sequels.
DW: I only ever bothered to see the first film in the series, and I thought it was about as good as you could probably expect a movie based on a video game to be. I can see the appeal; there are big action set-pieces all over the place, gore for fans of that, and women in the lead. But I watch this trailer and I just feel lost. All the big reveals of monsters and characters feels like I’m expected to know who they are and why they’re significant, and I don’t, and what’s more, I don’t even know if I am supposed to recognize them or if I’m just supposed to be impressed with how scary or menacing they look. It’s like watching an undubbed foreign film without subtitles. Only with zombies.
DW: Everyone on the Internet seems to have had their good laugh at the anecdotal stories of audiences reacting negatively to M. Night Shyamalan’s name appearing in the credits. I would hope that, after the last couple of years, we’d all have learned some important lessons about mistaking how the Internet reacts to a film to how the general public will react. And while I personally tend to think that Shyamalan’s best work is behind him, actually stepping back and let someone else direct the story might be the sort of thing his career needs.
The part that bothers me more than the “story by” credit is that “The Night Chronicles” line in the movie’s homepage address. I don’t want a series of horror films released under an umbrella title. Horror as a genre is already plagued by an overabundance of remakes and sequels. A “ready made” franchise just seems like a terrible idea.
The plot doesn’t do much for me either, to tell the truth. Why would Satan need to scare a bunch of people on an elevator? Is Hell micromanaged that badly?
KL: The basic concept of the trailer looks like it might make a pretty good 30-minute episode of something – I suppose Tales From the Crypt. As high concepts go, “bunch of people stuck in an elevator no one can get to, one of them might be a demon” isn’t bad, but it isn’t feature-film material.
I’m automatically turned off by any movie that seems to hinge on one crucial reveal. Take Cloverfield, for instance: the heat building up for that one seemed immense, but so much of it was based around “what’s the monster look like?” And once people knew, man, no one cared anymore. Unless there’s some exceptional character work done here, I don’t know if anyone will care “who the bad person is” past the first leaked online spoilers. A gimmick does not a story make.
KL: Gone Baby Gone was, like, the best movie I saw the year it came out. Walking out, I asked the question probably a lot of other people did: holy shit, why doesn’t Ben Affleck direct more movies? Great cast, great mystery, great suspense, and an absolutely crushing moral dilemma. I can’t ask for more in my crime dramas.
OR CAN I? Affleck directing, starring and co-writing, with Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Chris Cooper, Jon Hamm… the trailer unfolds and the hits just keep on coming. Affleck’s got a lot to live up to with his sophomore effort, but I think he’s equal to the task.
DW: Affleck’s previous effort as a director was a smart crime thriller that was so much better than a film by the star of Mallrats had any right to be. I’m not as enthusiastic about this one, but that’s not because this doesn’t look good. It looks extremely promising with an absolutely stellar cast. It’s that so much of the drama of the film looks to be based on the relationship Affleck’s character has with the female characters. The moment in the trailer that looks like it’s supposed to be a shocking reveal felt, frankly, a bit obvious, though that may be more due to me watching and reading far more mysteries and thrillers than I probably should. That is holding me back a little, as is the thought of Affleck injecting that love-sick puppy-dog affectation he takes on in romantic roles into what otherwise looks like an engaging crime drama.
KL: Easy A doesn’t have much going on behind the camera, far as I can tell—director Will Gluck only has Fired Up on his resumé and writer Bert Royal has written one episode of one show I have not heard of. The people in front of the camera have more going on. I like Emma Stone a lot, and the minor characters are filled out by a reliable crew: Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson and Lisa Kudrow, among others.
But that’s not enough; in the mental calculus that goes into my “will I or won’t I” formulas for movies, none of that stuff put together adds up to a passing grade. The premise? I suppose it has some potential for turning conventions about teenage-girl sexuality on its ear, but, again: Fired Up.
DW: Let me get my one moment of politically-correct gay umbrage out of the way first: in 2010, the whole notion of encouraging a gay teenager to pretend to have sex with a girl for the sake of popularity is offensively retrograde, not to mention more than a little stupid.
Apart from that, I find myself rather liking the premise. With so many teenagers forced to endure abstinence-only sex education programs, I like the idea of a mainstream teen comedy that pricks the egos of religious hypocrites in the schoolyard. Add an appealing cast to that premise, and I think you have something that actually sounds fairly promising.
DW: I like Ryan Reynolds a lot, and I think with the right material he can be a really fantastic presence in a film. But I can’t seem to muster any enthusiasm for him in a box talking to people on a cell phone for an hour and half, no matter how taut and suspenseful the experience is supposed to be. It’s largely the same problem I had with the recent return of the “man vs. nature” horror films like Open Water and Frozen. I’m willing to take your word for it if you tell me that they’re good, but I just don’t have any interest in watching people slowly die as a form of entertainment. Buried appears to be aiming for something more in the classic thriller mold in its approach than those other films, but it still strikes me as in the same general vein.
KL: Geez, I feel like I could copy-and-paste my feelings about Devil and call it a day. Good high concept that’d be much more potent in shorter form, central mystery to crack…
The difference is that I also like Ryan Reynolds quite a bit and have more faith in his charisma to carry this kind of concept. That said, I’ve been to my share of film festivals and seen my share of low-budget horror movies whose premise (and budget) demanded extreme claustrophobia with one or a handful of actors, and the exercise is, nine times out of ten, more exhausting than suspenseful.
I just checked out the writer’s IMDB page. You know he’s got another script in pre-production right now? Here’s the summary: “On a late night visit to an ATM, three coworkers end up in a desperate fight for their lives when they become trapped by an unknown man.”
It’s called ATM. Sounds like he’s found his niche!
DW: James Franco has turned into a very interesting actor in the last few years, and even in these brief glimpses of the film on display here he really seems to inhabit the role of Allen Ginsberg in an engaging and believable way. I’ve never had much patience for the “Beat” writers, so I don’t find myself too interested in learning more about Ginsberg’s life. Sure, more mainstream, Oscar-baiting biopics about gay and lesbian historical figures are probably, on the whole, a good thing, but I find the story about the obscenity trial more interesting. Both as an excellent reminder of what an era that is viewed with too much nostalgia was actually like for anyone who wasn’t a straight, conservative, white Christian man, and as a useful parallel to contemporary political and cultural controversies.
KL: I care even less about “Beat” writers than you, Dorian, but there seems to be a lot to recommend this.
There’s the cast. There’s the striking visual style on display, showing that once again, some filmmaker somewhere remembered that you can do anything you want with this medium, and that literalism is a prison, not a duty. And also there’s the obscenity trial, which by itself is a fascinating cultural artifact: the notion that there was a time that poetry could be so powerful and so threatening as to warrant such a thing.
KL: I do and do not understand the desire to create this movie.
On the one hand, yeah, Gordon Gekko would flip the fuck out in these heady times, when high-finance criminals rake in millions, tax payers shoulder the cost and no one seems to give much of a damn. Our country’s an oligarchy in everything but name.
On the other hand, yeesh. The trailer does the movie no favors by sketching out what must be 80% of its narrative and emotional arcs, leaving you with questions about the characters that are so obvious they may as well be rhetorical. I don’t really get off on watching people live the high life, so there’s precious little to offer me here. If Michael Douglas brings his sizzle, that’s something. But then I could just pop in the old Wall Street, couldn’t I?
DW: More so than most sequels, I find myself wondering what the point of this is. Yeah, the culture of greed that made Wall Street such a commentary on its times had its resurgence, and screwed over most Americans in the process, but even then a sequel feels about a year too late to have any impact. And, as you say, this looks so much like the original, if you really wanted to know what Oliver Stone thinks about the Gordon Gekko’s of the world, the original is right there already. Why would you need a retread?
KL: It’s gotta be tough out there for a mainstream actress. You don’t get to do action unless you’re Angelina Jolie, so the only leading roles you’re left with are period pieces or romantic comedies. Witness poor Kristen Bell, who has proven time and again she is really damn funny, headlining a movie that seems powered by how many groans-per-second it can generate.
Oh well. At least it’s not a romantic comedy.
DW: I think I’m slightly more generous than you in my reaction, because the film has so many actors whose work I really enjoy, and the situation is one that’s very relatable for just about everyone. And the fact that it isn’t a romantic comedy actually does give it some added appeal. I could really use a break from the bro-comedies dominating the discussion of what is and isn’t popular in theaters, so I hope that a good, women-orientated comedy can find some traction and an audience.