Sunday, August 18, 2013

THE FALL OF THE 2013 SUMMER MOVIE SEASON


Can you remember the last time the summer did not have a big breakout movie hit? You know, one of those films that got everyone talking? Last summer it was THE AVENGERS. In recent years, movies like BRIDESMAIDS and THE HANGOVER really stuck out and captured a certain zeitgeist in the nation. How about this year? What are we talking about this summer? A TV show - BREAKING BAD. The truth is, no movies have really achieved water cooler status this season.
Hugh Jackman in THE WOLVERINE.
Not that Hollywood didn’t try to rouse our enthusiasm. IRON MAN 3 was terrific. THE WOLVERINE was too. But since Robert Downey Jr. has played Tony Stark in five movies since 2008, perhaps it didn’t seem like that much of an event. Same with Jackman’s hirsute X-Man who has made six appearances on the big screen since the year 2000. Don’t get me wrong, I love both actors, both characters, and really enjoyed most of their movies, but the talk value waned before the first week was gone. Was it because both franchises are just a bit too familiar by now?

And big tent-pole CGI extravaganzas didn’t deliver what everyone thought they would either. STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, MAN OF STEEL, and PACIFIC RIM made money, albeit well below their high expectations. I feel bad for the folks over at Paramount who struggled with their well-reviewed STAR TREK film. At the recent Las Vegas Star Trek convention, fanboys voted it as the worst of all the movies (http://bit.ly/13kc0Bb). Especially galling is the fact that the film with the original Khan, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, was heralded as the best of them all. Look, I liked this last one a lot, but despite a sly performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, his character and the one that Ricardo Montalban so memorably played back in 1982, had little in common with each other, other than namesake. It would seem that if you’re going to keep going back to the STAR TREK well, it’s best not to screw around with the legend. Or I’d argue, do something much more original.
 
Benedict Cumberbatch in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.
If even the good movies are being dissed, well, you know that audiences are not pleased with Hollywood’s attempts to enthrall them. Something is deeply amiss. We’d rather discuss Walter White and Don Draper than the Wolfpack or Wolverine.

Could it be that too many Hollywood movies all have the term ‘event’ slapped on them due to the size of their budgets and not necessarily the size of an audience’s interest in them? Is it possible that audiences are just plain tuckered out on all of the superhero movies continually gorging the Cineplexes? Has CGI become so commonplace that it now fails to dazzle us? 

Yes. Yes. And yes.
Star Cate Blanchett with director Woody Allen on the set of BLUE JASMINE.
Maybe that’s why ‘sleeper’ movies like BLUE JASMINE and THE BUTLER have become surprise hits at the box office this past month. There were very low box office expectations for them as they were released in the waning August days, but sure enough, they are smashes. They created Oscar buzz before they opened but nobody expected such sterling box office right out of the gate for these two small films. Not only did they get strong notices, audiences noted them strongly. In fact, THE BUTLER just took this past weekend with a big $25 million and that’s quite extraordinary for such an intimate, almost arthouse movie. It seems that audiences may be hungering for something different, fresher, and rather more adult, no?

Tent pole movies are just becoming  more and more of a problem. It's hard for studios to recoup their costs on such a ginormous investments (http://bit.ly/1cRKKOI). And there are money issues on sequels too (http://bit.ly/1cRQ4l2). Studios feel the need to make them and they feel the pressure to make them bigger and more expensive each outing. Hopefully, with the crappy ROI on so many of this summer's excessively budgeted films, Hollywood will realize that people don't always see bigger as better. Nor do they really need to see or want to see even the most beloved movie characters a half-dozen times on the big screen in a decade. Audiences really want something that dazzles. A great story. Characters you care about. Something more unique. And yes, that can be a film with no CGI and a budget less than $10 million. 
Forest Whitaker in THE BUTLER.
One need look no further than this past weekend to realize that sequels have reached a point of utterly diminishing returns with releases like KICK-ASS 2. I was actually looking forward to it, having enjoyed the black comedy of the original movie. Adapted from the cult comic book about a teen trying to play superhero and getting beaten to a pulp by real criminals, that first movie was wicked and shocking and didn’t pull any of its satiric punches. The highpoint of the film was the character of Hit Girl, played coldly by Chloe Grace Moretz (11-years-old at the time). Hit Girl was a kid, but swore like a long shoreman and killed like a Ninja buzzed on Venti coffee. Her anti-hero, ‘superhero’ character represented just how far our violent pop culture had gone. The movie’s most ruthless killer was a sixth grader. That cryptic commentary was bang-on indeed. And a commentary on our moviegoing obsession with superhero movies too.

But the sequel arrived DOA. Not only did it scrub most of Mark Millar’s sharp storytelling from his source material, but this one tried to be sweetly sentimental throughout. Where's the fun or funny in that? No wonder Jim Carrey distanced himself from the film. He said it was due to Sandy Hook, but he might have sensed that the film just wasn’t right at all.

Moretz is now 16 and a striking young woman so the concept of Hit Girl really doesn't work with an actress in her late teens. Plus, lead Aaron Johnson was so buff in the sequel, he no longer was believable as a hapless nerd trying to be a superhero. Those kinds of mistakes made the sequel way too many kinds of wrong. Carrey should have balked as soon as he walked on the set and saw his grown-up costars!
Chloe Grace Moretz in KICK-ASS 2.
All in all, KICK-ASS 2 was a sequel that probably didn't need to be made. The first movie wasn’t that big of a hit for starters, and its ending was terrific - self-contained and quite satisfying. And if you’re not even going to adapt Millar's comic book faithfully for the sequel, what’s the point? I also believe that KICK-ASS 2 may simply have been one comic book movie too many this summer to jack the enthusiasm of critics or audiences.

Funny how the public always seems to be ahead of the powers that be making decisions in this nation. We wanted out of Viet Nam before Nixon figured out we had to depart. America embraced gay marriage long before every politician started coming out on the positive side of this civil rights issue. And now movie audiences are telling Hollywood that they have reached the limits of how much enthusiasm they can work up for 200 million dollars worth of CGI, umpteenth chapters of superhero sagas, and sequels that are pointless or artless.  
The poster for the upcoming DIANA.
The autumn movie season sounds more promising what with DON JON, RUSH, DIANA, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, ALL IS LOST and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS opening soon. (Just to name six - they all have strong word-of-mouth). I can hardly wait for them. To me, this summer felt like fall. As in the industry took a real fall. 

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