Summer movies: for many of us those words portend an up-close look at everything wrong with modern-day Hollywood. Back in 2003 I wrote a piece on that year’s summer movie season, with its plethora of overly expensive crap like CHARLIE’S ANGELS: FULL THROTTLE and GIGLI, and the summer of 2009 essentially followed its lead. The movies may have been different but the thinking behind them was largely the same.
I harbor many sunny childhood memories of summer moviegoing, and while many of those fondly remembered films—CLASH OF THE TITANS, TRON, GHOSTBUSTERS, DIE HARD—will never make anyone’s list of the greatest ever made, they were crafted by talented filmmakers who appeared to have a bit more in mind than appeasing test audiences and lining executives’ pockets.
A good resource for those curious about summer movies and their importance to Hollywood is Peter Bart’s 1999 book THE GROSS, which takes a thorough look into the movie industry’s wrangling leading up to and during the summer of ‘98 (when the Roland Emmerich GODZILLA, ARMAGEDDON and THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY hit screens).
The book illuminates, through copious interviews, the dichotomy between the ultra-exclusive attitudes of Hollywood’s movers and shakers and the movies they put out. I’m thinking in particular of a Sony executive who Bart identifies as a super-elitist in his personal entertainment preferences yet enthusiastically greenlit the abovementioned GODZILLA, and an interview with Warren Beatty in which Bart questions him about his socialist screed BULWORTH—specifically how the film’s staunch anti-capitalist ideals fit in with the outrageous salaries commanded by Beatty and his fellow performers. “But these are actors” is Beatty’s response. Clearly those of you (and I know you’re out there) patting yourselves on the back for seeing TRANSFORMERS 2 and so not appearing “elitist” should probably rethink your stance!
More importantly, Bart’s text shows how the industry was consumed by a crippling wave of excess that has only increased in the years since. If 1998 was “The Summer that Ate Hollywood” (as THE GROSS is subtitled), then what can we possibly say about the summer of 2009, the majority of whose offerings were so bloated and expensive they made GODZILLA and ARMAGEDDON look like models of restraint?
Of this year’s crop of summer movies, I must say I’ve seen quite a few. Most, however, were of the avant-garde variety: THE HURT LOCKER, MOON, LIFE IS HOT IN CRACKTOWN, DEAD SNOW, SURVEILLANCE, THIRST. As for the biggies, I caught a few (the new TERMINATOR, DRAG ME TO HELL, PUBLIC ENEMIES), but passed on TRANSFORMERS 2, ICE AGE 3 (or is it 4?), HARRY POTTER 6, etc.
No, I’m not going to gripe about the evils of corporate domination of the media. I can’t really bitch about that when I know full well I’ll be enriching those corporate entities by seeing their movies now and in years to come, as I’m certain will you (novelist/screenwriter David J. Schow ranted about this topic in a recent issue of FANGORIA, leaving out the fact that he apparently has no problem working for the very media titans he rails against, as he did with his scripts for THE CROW and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 3). In other words, I will eventually catch up with TRANSFORMERS 2, and there’s a good chance I’ll even enjoy it.
The conclusion? There isn’t one, other than the obvious fact that my relationship with summer movies is a complicated one—and with that in mind, here’s my overview of the movies of summer, circa 2009.
STAR TREK: The first Summer tent pole movie to appear back in May, and very likely the best of ‘em all. As one who was never all that enamored with STAR TREK, I felt the action-oriented approach taken by director J.J. Abrams was the right one. A well deserved box office success!
ANGELS AND DEMONS: I didn’t see this one and have no plans to. I’ve never been able to watch DA VINCI CODE for more than a few minutes at a time (and didn’t care for the book either), so something tells me this prequel isn’t for me.
TERMINATOR: SALVATION: Like many summer movies past and present this new TERMINATOR relies on wall-to-wall noise and fury to numb viewers into submission. That explains why I enjoyed watching the movie, but find that thinking back on it the whole thing falls apart.
LAND OF THE LOST: I’m not a religious person, but this film’s failure at the box office suggests to me that there may just be a God!
TRANSFOMERS: RISE OF THE FALLEN: I’ll see this eventually, and, as I said above, may even like it.
PUBLIC ENEMIES: Easily Michael Mann’s best work in years, but still quite overrated. Critics fawned over PUBLIC ENEMIES like starving men at a buffet, apparently not noticing the scatterbrained narrative and overabundance of supporting characters. Not a big hit, unsurprisingly.
THE HURT LOCKER: Also a good movie, and also quite overrated. It seems the critics are so grateful for grown-up cinema in the midst of all the seasonal crap that they willfully overlook the shortcomings of films like PUBLIC ENEMIES and this one. THE HURT LOCKER is a superbly made, gritty and convincing look at bomb diffusers in Iraq. Like the above listing, however, it suffers from a formless narrative that runs out of steam long before the end.
MOON: This science fiction indie has met with a fair amount of critical and commercial success. Why? I have no idea! MOON was billed as a stately and intelligent mindbender, but I found it an uninspired morass of genre clichés. It’s not unlike Danny Boyle’s SUNSHINE in this respect, but that film had style and energy to spare, two things MOON woefully lacks.
THE HANGOVER: Another one I missed—truthfully, it never looked all that promising to me. Audiences the world over clearly thought differently.
BRUNO: I also gave this one a pass (I still haven’t seen BORAT!).
THE ORPHAN: The summer’s big horror-themed entry, and a box office bust. I meant to catch THE ORPHAN but have yet to get around to doing so—and it’s nearly gone from theaters. Clearly something about the film and/or its marketing campaign just isn’t clicking, with me or anyone else.
PONYO: I’m apparently the only person on the planet unimpressed by the anime “genius” Hayao Miyazaki. I haven’t liked any of the previous Miyazaki films I’ve seen, so I strongly doubt I’ll get much out of this new one, regardless of how much lathering the fanboy community gives it.
G.I. JOE: I vaguely recall the G.I. JOE action figures and short-lived cartoon series from the eighties, but they’re not enough to entice me to shell out for this latest exercise in braindead excess from director Stephen Sommers.
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS: Quentin Tarantino’s latest has received possibly the most mixed assortment of reviews I’ve ever encountered. I got a huge kick out of the film, though how it will do at the box office is anyone’s guess.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 2, HARRY POTTER 6, ICE AGE 3, THE PROPOSAL, THE UGLY TRUTH, G-FORCE, JULIE AND JULIA and THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE: The majority of these films made money, but I wouldn’t be caught dead seeing any of ‘em. If that makes me an elitist than all I can say is: here’s to elitism!