Summer counterprogramming clicks, but global auds are still gobbling up familiar film stew

Summer’s end spells relief for some folks — parents who are glad to see their kids back in school or film critics who won’t have to review any more superhero movies.

A case in point are the two chief critics for the New York Times who wrote one of their joint columns last week acknowledging their “blockbuster fatigue” while at the same time expressing relief that summer releases offered more counterprogramming than in past years.

I share their conclusions, though I never understood why the Times has two “chief critics,” why they write joint columns or why, like nervous newlyweds, they always seem to agree with each other. On the other hand A.O. (Tony) Scott and Manohla Dargis consistently bring fairness and intellect to their craft — perhaps sometimes too much intellect (some of the Times critics of old, like Vincent Canby, were inhibited about putting scholarship on display).

Scott and Dargis made some valid points about the surprises of summer 2012, even though they arguably singled out the wrong surprises.

Dargis billed “Magic Mike” as “the biggest story of the summer,” noting that its success “affirms that some like it hot and without any underwear.” In reality, “Ted,” about the talking teddy bear, was a bigger box office story than Channing Tatum’s package, the film grossing twice as much. Even more surprising, an even dopier film, “American Reunion,” the fourth installment of a creaky franchise, grossed some $235 million worldwide. (The two critics didn’t mention either film but understandably raved about “Moonrise Kingdom,” a vastly better film, which has passed the $40 million mark at the box office.)

Further, while Scott and Dargis focused on “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” as the international counterprogramming success story, that film has done less than half the business of “The Intouchables,” and is not as good a movie.

The Times critics acknowledge that all these films still lived in the shadow of summer superhero epics like “The Avengers,” “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” Scott even admired the Batman sequel, writing that he was “amused by its snarl of conservative anti-populism — respect the rich! Obey the police! Don’t trust environmental do-gooders!”

Is that what Chris Nolan was telling us? I’d like to offer the Batman director equal time.

Dargis did not share her assessment of superhero ideology but did express satisfaction that “four movies in the top 20 were made for $20 million or under.” She further wrote that if she were made chief of a studio (admittedly a remote possibility) she would offer her favorite directors a budget of $10 million apiece “to make whatever they want as long as their results come in with an R rating or below and don’t run over two hours.” Years ago, another tough-minded critic, Pauline Kael, was offered a studio job but self-immolated before ever greenlighting a movie.

Scott, ever polite, responded to Dargis’ idea by writing “That would be cool” and adding that he was pleased lately by the growing power of the female audience. He cited “The Hunger Games,” and Pixar’s “Brave” (which features the company’s first female protagonist), noting that this year’s films don’t reflect the usual “male-dominated entertainment universe.”

All in all, Scott concluded that there’s evidence of “a desire among audiences, filmmakers, actors and maybe even studio executives for variety and surprise.”

I’m glad the two Times writers have found some grounds for critical equanimity going into the fall. I would like to share their good feeling but worry about those friendly overseas audiences that are really paying Hollywood’s bills these days. Are they sharing in this “variety and surprise”?

As Variety’s Andrew Stewart has observed, Hollywood’s ever-loyal foreign filmgoers have rescued clunkers like “John Carter,” “Battleship” and “Wrath of the Titans,” to the tune of $890 million at the box office. A pedestrian movie like “Ice Age: Continental Drift” has registered some $773 million (and still counting) worldwide, with its foreign gross totaling four times its domestic return.

Does this suggest that while American audiences might be showing early signs of sophistication, Hollywood has succeeded in vulgarizing the tastes of everyone else?

Surely Americans in their infinite generosity will be willing to share some of their hard-earned “blockbuster fatigue” with the rest of the world.

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