Bummer Summer for the Movies

I’ve been to screenings of three of the summer’s “big” movies over the past week and I must say I was mostly less than impressed. When I see a film that doesn’t excite me intellectually—or even on a visceral level—it leaves me enervated. And a couple of these films were so cynical and formulaic, it really felt like an insult to audiences that the producers would even try to pass them off as entertainment.

An air of weary déja vu hangs over The Hangover Part II. Jumble the characters around a bit, transplant the action to Thailand, spin some variations on the raunchy jokes, and you have a feeble sequel to the surprise 2009 hit. This time Stu (Ed Helms) is the one getting married, having dumped his shrewish fiance from the original, and his new love is Lauren (Jamie Chung), a Thai-American, and the Wolfpack sets off for her home country for the wedding being held at her father’s palatial estate.

Phil (Bradley Cooper) wants the boys to come out to the beach for a wedding eve toast, joined by Lauren’s genius brother, 16-year-old Teddy (Mason Lee, son of director Ang Lee), whom Alan takes an immediate and inexplicable dislike to. Of course, they wake up in a sleazy hotel room in Bangkok with no memory of what had transpired the night before. Instead of a tiger and a baby in the room, there’s a drug-dealing Capuchin monkey, and Mr. Chow (Ken Jeung) is introduced right away, naked, with another gag about his…er…shortcomings. Teddy is nowhere to be found, but his severed finger (identified by his school ring) is discovered, so the guys hit the mean streets of Bangkok to reconstruct the previous night and locate the kid, leading them to a series of misadventures that are ever-escalating in their awfulness.

If you’ve seen the first film, you pretty much know everything that’s going to happen in this one. The setting is different, but the incidents are the same with—as I said earlier—slight variation. Instead of a missing tooth, Stu now sports a Mike Tyson-style tattoo on his face. Instead of a car trunk, Mr. Chow is thrown into an ice machine after he snorts a bump of cocaine and appears to die of a heart attack. And vicious thugs are coming out of the woodwork to attack them—but no one knows why.

Director Todd Phillips, along with co-scripters Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong, seem to think that the characters need to be more extreme to be effective. As a result, Stu is an even bigger quivering mess and Phil is an even bigger asshole. Alan (Zack Galifianakis), who was a somewhat psycho but funny child-man in the first film, has become a complete psycho in the sequel, and it’s more disturbing than anything else. Ironically, Jeung’s pansexual, arrogant Chow actually comes off the best, as his character serves as kind of a Greek chorus, chanting “You all suck!” to the other cast members.

I didn’t laugh once during the film…maybe a chuckle. I enjoyed the car chase, but otherwise the filmmakers’ attempts at extreme grossness were just extremely gross without being funny, and some of the gags were pretty offensive. Oh—and the cameo that Mel Gibson was supposed to play was done by Liam Neeson, then reshot with Nick Cassavettes, and that’s the one used in the film. And I guess they’re going to have to digitally erase Helms’ Tyson tattoo when the film comes to cable and DVD.

Today I saw J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, a film I’ve discussed on this blog a couple of times, even speculating if it had the chance to be the summer movie of 2011. Well, the answer is…no!

Super 8 begins as a charming-enough Spielbergian story of a bunch of kids making a zombie movie in a small Ohio town in the summer of 1979. While shooting a scene at a train station in the middle of the night, they hurry to take advantage of an actual oncoming train—”Production values!” cries the director (Riley Griffiths)—but they’re horrified when it suddenly derails, boxcars piling up in fiery heaps.

Strange things start to happen (electrical blackouts, the disappearance of metal objects like car engines and microwaves) and the army invades. Meanwhile, the children, who’ve sworn not to tell anyone that they’d witnessed the wreck, try to figure out what’s going on. But the film lurches abruptly from a Goonies-style adventure into strictly Michael Bay territory, with much headache-inducing slamming and crashing and huge pieces of metal being thrown all over the place. And, yes…you’ve read it other places, I’m sure, but let me also chime in to say that the denouement well and truly sucks.

Abrams’ fawning attempt at a Spielberg film circa the late 1970s didn’t take proper lessons from those films, and that’s why it’s not a success. Now, I confess I’m not a Spielberg fan—I find his films to be too heavy-handed (except Catch Me If You Can, which was a surprise), but if you’ve got fond memories of the movies Abrams is paying tribute to—Close Encounters, E.T., The Goonies (not directed by him but based on a Spielberg story), you’ll find little to charm you here.

Super 8 is too hard-edged and mean to be charming. It’s not really a kids’ film at all, yet it’s too lame for adults. Most all of the characters are one-dimensional and cliches abound. Griffiths, as the budding director, is the prototypical “fat kid” with self-esteem issues and a houseful of obnoxious siblings. Elle Fanning, as Alice, the “girl from the wrong side of the tracks” has a weary mien and dark circles under her eyes that say more about her relationship with her abusive father than even the filmmakers may have intended. Joel Courtney, as Joe Lamb, son of the town’s deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler), who is grieving over his mother’s accidental death, starts out appealingly, especially in his developing relationship with Alice, but he gets saddled with some of the film’s most groan-worthy “twists.”

I should’ve sensed trouble from the very beginning. It’s during the wake at Joel’s house after his mother’s funeral. He’s sitting outside on a swing, despondent, and an actress looking through the kitchen window at him with welling blue eyes and trembling lips is giving a really bad performance as she talks about how worried she is about him and how she’s afraid his father won’t be able to take care of him.

Super 8‘s biggest problem, though, is that unlike the 1970s films that inspired it, this film isn’t necessary to ever see again. Once the ending has been revealed to you, and you’ve booed appropriately, it’s all over. There’s no friendly extraterrestrial to revisit or magic spaceship to watch rise again over the Devil’s Tower. There’s just a really stupid conclusion to two noisy hours that you’ll never get back as Michael Giacchino’s John Williamsy music swells on the soundtrack.

And that’s the big difference between Spielberg’s blockbusters and Super 8. No charm, no repeatability…end of story.

Easily my favorite of the summer movies I saw last week is X-Men: First Class. English director Matthew Vaughn (whose Stardust I liked a lot) takes the reins and gives much-needed, James Bondish boost of energy to the fifth installment in the series. Here we meet Xavier and Erik/Magneto as children and then again as young men, getting the backstory of how they were shaped into the hero/villain they eventually became.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are terrific as Xavier and Erik, sharing a nice bromance before they become mortal enemies. Kevin Bacon is a fun surprise as Schmidt, the concentration camp doctor who kills Erik’s mother and years later evolves into Sebastian Shaw, plotting to destroy and enslave all the humans on earth so that the mutants can have free reign. At first they work together to assemble a mutant team to battle Shaw, but Xavier realizes that Erik is much too driven by anger and vengeance, and the two friends are driven apart. Shaw wants to make the Cuban missile crisis happen. Xavier wants to stop him and Erik just wants to kill him. All these strands of story converge in a pretty spiffing climax.

The film has its share of snappy dialogue, much of it quite amusing. The action sequences are enjoyably staged and take place all over the world, giving it nice movement and expansiveness. There are a couple of hilarious cameos to watch for: when Xavier and Erik are canvassing for mutants to join their team, they find Wolverine in a bar. Before they can even offer him their proposition, he snarls, “Go fuck yourself.” In another scene, the jailbait Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sneaks into Erik’s bed to try to seduce him, and he tells her to come back in a few years. “Is this better?” she asks, transforming herself into—Rebecca Romijn!

I always have to mention when I’m writing about superhero movies that I’m not a follower of the comics they’re based on, so when I see one that I find comprehensible and exciting without benefit of the original story, I have to compliment it. X-Men: First Class is one of those films. It’s top-heavy with mutants, some of whom I knew and others I’d never seen before, but they were well-integrated into the story. I especially enjoyed seeing them as kids, learning to manage their powers under Xavier’s tutelage.

Of course, the parallels between the mutants’ longing for acceptance, the struggle for Civil Rights and the battle against homophobia are still there and addressed in sometimes amusing fashion. When government employee Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is inadvertently “outed” as a mutant by Xavier, he tells his human employer, “You didn’t ask…and I didn’t tell.”

There’s certainly a sequel coming for this one, and I welcome it. I’ve liked all the X-Men films, even—gasp!—X3 and X-Men Origins, but this arc of the franchise seems like it will have more philosophical and metaphorical subject matter to chew on.

One thought on “Bummer Summer for the Movies

  1. Anonymous says:

    You were too kind to SUPER 8. It's rare for me to get angry at the screen, but this one did it. What calculated drivel!

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