Thursday, September 5, 2013

Things I Learned On My Summer Vacation

The summer movie season came and assaulted the senses and poof, it's gone.  The Labor Day weekend signals the end of that special parcel of time when Hollywood throws all its bombast in our faces, but the sign posts have been there for a few weeks now, evident by the dominance of Lee Daniels' The Butler solid box office play and three week straight strangle hold as the number one film of the nation.  It's not so much that the Forest Whitaker-Oprah Winfrey Civil Rights drama has posted the most significant numbers in the stratosphere (they certainly are impressive, especially given the subject matter) but more so because the dog days of August are when Hollywood typically gives up and regroups for fall.  It may be too early to tell how the cinematic offerings of the past few months will hold up and where there legacy lies, but first impressions are typically all that matters (especially in today's climate where a film lives or dies based on opening night grosses), but there's always takeaways, residual damages and lessons to be learned.  Here's Musings and Stuff's rundown of the good, bad and ugly of the 2013 Summer Movie Season.

First off, seventeen of Hollywood's offerings raked in over $100 million at the box office, which is a healthy sign that the theater-going habit isn't quite dead yet.  The top of the charts, unsurprisingly is Iron Man 3, which joined the worldwide billion dollar club and started summer 2013 with a bang, thanks to The Avengers afterglow.  The Marvel machine is healthy enough it hardly matters the film, strangely critically accepted, wasn't all that.  The real test, however, should be found in the grosses and the critical impact made by lesser Marvel standalone vehicles Thor and Captain America as each will have individual offerings in the next 365 days.  The remaining sixteen films tell a startlingly different story.

Despicable Me 2 made a buttload of cash (it's currently the second highest grossing film of 2013) and breezed away with bragging rights over the Fourth of July holiday, crushing summertime punching bag The Lone RangerMonsters University, the Pixar prequel to the inventive 2001 hit, also hit big becoming the fourth Pixar title to gross upwards of $700 million at the worldwide box office.  However, let's not mince words: neither film is particularly special, nor all that memorable.  Same goes with less successful animated products of the summer like Epic and Turbo and Planes.  Ever since the heavily romanticized yet bountiful period where Disney ushered in its Renaissance in the late 80s and early 90s, the animated feature started to legitimatize as not just a cash cow, but a substantial art form in it's own right, not just for kids or ravished by cults; the dominance of Pixar took over as Disney-proper's product started to fade.  One things for certain, however, that a huge narrative of the last twenty-five years of cinema has been the prominence of story and character (things of which mainstream Hollywood seems less and less interested with) in animated films.  And with few exceptions, animated features have ranked highly (sometimes highest) critically and commercially in those years.  2013's slate is one of the sorriest.  The column is not particularly concerning awards coverage, but the mere thought of Despicable Me 2 or Monsters University being invited as the best in filmmaking of the year is kind of sad-- especially considered both are sequels to films the Academy rejected the first go-around.  Say what one would like about non-starters like Epic or Turbo (over saturation of the marketplace, blah..blah...blah); the movies may not have been any good.

Iron Man 3 was untouchable, it got that ripe audience goodwill free pass for merely following the bestest, biggest whatsit ever (The Avengers, but of course), but there's a story in the fact that many of the pre-sold blockbusters of the summers inspired such angry and heated debates amongst fans and non-fans alike.  Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams' sequel to his blisteringly good 2009 update of the franchise was the first to debut, first to strong reviews and respectable (if not, god forbid, record-breaking numbers) and then came the debate-- how did a film that everyone seemed to like seem to become a film everyone seemed to turn against?  Suddenly, Abrams, who four years ago was the healer of the Star Trek cinematic universe was turned into a heretic and all levels of the film opened to scrutiny from Benedict Cumberbatch's reveal to the non-stop, seemingly non-Star Trek action sequences.  The film still made money, but the franchise became fallible again to the believers.  A month later, Man of Steel, Zack Synder's reboot of Supes opened up an even bigger can of worms, and suddenly became a lightening rod for superhero hate-watching.  Synder and DC's ultimate refrain came way of making its big announcement (you know what) which nearly broke the internet and seemed to deflect large chunks of Man of Steel's criticism-- a desperate nod for attention is what it looked like.  However, there's an interesting element that's occurred in the post-CN (Christopher Nolan) tentpole:  While Nolan's Batman films are dark, brooding and generally lacking in humor and, you know, fun in the traditional way, there's always been a sort of intellectual morality to his dark, brooding, humorless films.  They also happened to have appealed to critics just as passionately as audiences, a caveat that blockbusters of yesteryear had no interest in doing and blockbusters of today desperately strive for.  The post-CN tentpoles are loud, rock 'em, sock 'em extravaganzas set against a dark, brooding and humorless backdrop.  There's a difference there, and that may stand the line in the new age of the divisive blockbuster.

A sleeper, by definition "one that achieves unexpected recognition or success, as a racehorse or movie."  Not expected for much, perhaps released in theaters to dispose of a contract or two.  Whatever the cases, it's the surprises that alight all of in that silly David vs. Goliath narrative.  Every summer got a few and 2013's summer slate is no exception.  Now You See Me, a Grade-B seeming magician heist flick opened at the tail end of May with little fanfare and quietly became this summers Little Engine That Could, whilst maintaining its hushed position on the weekly box office charts.  Now it's a known quantity and a sequel is on the way.  Shocking for a film that opened a mere two months after the high profile magician flop The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.  The Conjuring, an old-fashioned creaky house horror film opened in the middle of July and quickly became a sensation.  Perhaps mainly because the competition was sad and tired, a strange predicament considered July is typically a bountiful month of unleashing blockbusters into the world, yet the film with its good notices, stellar cast (Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson) and old-school veneer became a surprising summertime thrill ride.  Other surprises include the robust box office number for Baz Luhrmann's take on The Great Gatsby, which stuck out its middle finger (in 3-D, no less) to the critics that slammed it and in my opinion, has improved once the initial point of impact has settled.  We're the Millers, a trashy, lazily constructed "high" concept R-rated comedy kept going (and still keeps going) as the dog days commenced, quietly laughing up beyond healthy receipts, and Lee Daniels' The Butler, whilst not quiet the sensation The Help was two years back this time of year (that's not a negative-- that film came pre-sold from a bestselling book) made its impression clear, and may find itself in the awards race.  Surprise is good, even the films themselves that surprise may not always be.

Remember not so long ago (I'm not that old) when a new Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts flick was pre-destined for success.  The idea of the movie star is generations old, but it may officially be over.  Yes, Robert Downey, Jr. towered large over the highest grosser of 2012, and was elemental in its success (not to mention one of the key triggers of the entire Marvel universe), but it's Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man, throw him in a weird oddity where he truly shines and see what grosses it inspires.  And yes, Adam Sandler guided Grown Ups 2 to a decent gross on his affable back and Brad Pitt brought his refined sense of cool to World War Z, but things are amiss when Will Smith (After Earth), Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), Matt Damon (Elysium) or Cruise himself (Oblivion) all have films that struggle up the mountain.  We're sold less on big names nowadays and more on concepts, which makes it harder for established names (like Channing Tatum, who starred in the summer non-starter White House Down) or even up-and-comers (like Henry Cavill, of Man of Steel) to truly breakout.  And yet, inexplicably, Ms. Melissa McCarthy has fashioned herself into a movie star.  Already 2013's R-rated comedy MVP with the success of the trashy Identity Theif and this summer's even bigger The Heat, she's a breathe of fresh, funny air that bucks ever statistician's logic over what prevails in Hollywood.  Let's hope she continues to irk Rex Reed for years to come, but can turn her profitable movie star status on to projects more worthy of weird and wiry gifts.

The blather that Hollywood filmmaking is a land of recycled ideas where originality became extinct eons ago is such a tired point, you would think the point would have been dialed into years ago.  This summer marked something a little special--  it's not so much that the movies were particularly good (at least the big ones) but in a few circumstances the audiences dissented.  While lots of big dumb things made tons of cash (Fast & Furious 6, Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, etc.), lots of big dumb things ended up losing money too (R.I.P.D., The Lone Ranger, White House Down) marking a summer where audience, at least slightly, started to rebel.  In each instance, there's a logical reason for why, something that one would think, what with all the market research and data that goes into branding would-be franchise properties, would have been sighted way before filming even began.  The Lone Ranger for instance was marketed as a western Pirates of the Caribbean, but it was also based on material that hasn't been popular in half a century.  The more interesting part of the summer and the more troubling factor comes into play with two specific would-be and not quite blockbusters of the summer of the 2013-- Elysium and Pacific Rim.  Neither film was a complete failure-- look closer at worldwide grosses and both aren't as direly in the red as it might appear, but both were met as not quite successes as well.  It's notable as both film were eagerly anticipated and shrouded with hyperbolic beacons of hope (if only to the Comic-Con set) to the otherwise sequelled and rebooted big event films of the summer.  That kind of the built-in expectation and pressure likely dispelled doom on both projects.  For my take, we should have more interesting not-quite successes like Elysium and Pacific Rim any day over the bland nondescript normal blockbusters.  Just find a way to bring down those expenses budgets and tell the Facebook nerds to keep their cool...

The sexist nature of the film industry is a long-in-the-tooth argument, one I'm not particularly interested in going into great detail, but if you looked closely throughout summer 2013, it was women, in front of and behind the camera that were doing the most exciting stuff.  Yeah, the big blockbusters paid no attention as per usual (outside of The Heat, no major best seller had a female lead), but the very best of the independent cinema that came out this summer had some dynamite parts and surprising showcases.  Think of Greta Gerwig's generous, insightful and gloriously offbeat comic turn in Frances Ha, Julie Delpy's melancholic beauty in Before Midnight, Shailene Woodley's astute and innate goodness in The Spectacular Now, Brie Larson in Short Term 12, Octavia Spencer's grace in Fruitvale Station, Oprah fabulous-ness in The Butler and Cate Blanchett's powerhouse riff on Blanche Dubois in Blue Jasmine.  It got better in the fact that female directors, again if you looked close enough, were fully charge and radiantly in control this summer from Sophia Coppola's The Bling Ring to first time writer/director Lake Bell in the harmonic and blissful In a World..., Gabriela Cowperthwaite's muckraking documentary Blackfish and Sarah Polley's powerful family diary Stories We Tell.  Even Iron Man 3 passed the Bechdel Test, something's in the air.  Take that Superman!

  1. Frances Ha
  2. Blue Jasmine
  3. Stories We Tell
  4. In a World...
  5. The Spectacular Now
  6. Fruitvale Station
  7. Star Trek Into Darkness
  8. The Great Gatsby
  9. The Heat
  10. Lee Daniels' The Butler

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