Variety critics debate the highs and lows of an unusually paranoid and post-apocalyptic summer movie season.
SCOTT FOUNDAS: And so another summer movie season comes to an end, with both a bang (in terms of record-breaking box office) and the collective whimpers of ousted executives and even an entire studio placed on and off the chopping block by hedge fund managers. Indeed, the behind-the-scenes drama at Sony — complete with third-act cameo by George Clooney in Norma Rae mode — would have made for a better movie called “Paranoia” than the one that will already have vacated multiplexes by the time you’re reading this.
Certainly, in terms of original ideas at the movies, this summer was more of a winter of discontent, with so many sequels, remakes and reboots that, on any number of weeks, fully half of the films in the box-office top 10 had some kind of number in their titles. This isn’t always a bad thing: two of my favorite movies of the season, “Fast and Furious 6” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” were sequels that equaled or bettered their predecessors both artistically and commercially. Still, as the dust settles, Oscar season shifts into gear, and we prepare to decamp for the fall festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, it seemed a good moment to take stock of the highs, lows and curious in-betweens of the past few months.
JUSTIN CHANG: Before we begin, I’d just like to say shame on you, Peter Debruge, and all the other rotten reviewers who conspired to slit the poor jugular of “The Lone Ranger.” Personally, I’ll always remember this as the summer that film criticism suddenly became relevant again — at least according to Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer and Jerry Bruckheimer, who decided to lay the blame for their epic box office failure at the collective feet of all those mean, mean critics who ganged up on their poor, defenseless blockbuster. To hear their petulant whining, you’d almost think critics didn’t just pan “The Lone Ranger” but wrote, directed and starred in it, too.
I was particularly amused by Hammer’s suggestion that the members of our inglorious profession “tried to do the same thing with ‘World War Z.’ It didn’t work, the movie was successful.” Hammer must not read many reviews (a shame, as he got a few good ones for “The Social Network”), or he’d have known that “World War Z,” which overcame horrendous pre-release buzz to become one of the summer’s major hits, actually drew solid, appreciative reviews across the board. It just goes to show that while the critics sometimes have their knives out for a movie, they’ll happily put them away if what’s onscreen actually surprises them. The ironic thing is that several of them did precisely that in the case of “The Lone Ranger,” a movie that was by no means unanimously hated, and which had its fair share of defenders. I think it’s a messy, often misguided but sometimes glorious sprawl of a movie that, at its infrequent best, reminded me just how rare it is to see a Western mounted on this sort of scale anymore.
PETER DEBRUGE: Movie studios have done their damnedest to render film critics irrelevant, and the idea that we moved the needle on any of the summer blockbusters, positive or negative, boggles the mind. This season, Paramount extended its practice of inviting fanboy press to early screenings, canvassing their reactions and then setting review embargoes according to the level of enthusiasm they heard back — a way of ensuring that the first wave of reviews on “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “World War Z” came from the pundits most inclined to appreciate those films.
These days, bombastic marketing, not thoughtful analysis, compels people to see movies; our job is to help champion the tiny treasures and hold the studios accountable for the franchise pictures they produce. As for “The Lone Ranger,” it’s rare to see Westerns mounted on any scale anymore, though I for one wouldn’t mind if Hollywood packed up their tentpoles and got back to the business of telling stories about characters, not comicbook heroes.
I just caught Destin Cretton’s terrific new independent film, “Short Term 12,” for the second time this weekend, and I was once again struck by how starved I am for these kinds of movies — ones that engage with real life, not digital escapism. I love films that transport me into an unfamiliar world, but that needn’t be science fiction. Sometimes, the most foreign environments are right under our noses, like the foster-care facility in “Short Term 12,” or the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, as imagined by Ryan Coogler in “Fruitvale Station.”
The best of these was far and away the most intimate: Sarah Polley’s astonishingly personal documentary “Stories We Tell,” in which the Canadian actress sets out to answer her biological father’s identity. My favorite movies are great stories, not roller-coaster rides (though the two needn’t be mutually exclusive), and watching Polley orchestrate staged scenes in order to convey a more honest truth struck me as more cutting edge than any of innovations we witnessed in 3D visual effects or ear-bleeding Atmos sound design this summer.
These films I mention were all hatched in the spirit of emotional connection, not to bludgeon the money out of our wallets in order to feed a cycle of more $200 million movies. In terms of box office, it’s been a confusing few months, with record-high grosses (and record-high marketing spends) dampened by a string of massive bombs. But let’s call it for what it is: a slump. The box office numbers are almost beside the point when the underlying creative elements are this stale. How can the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman possibly be a bigger story than the fact that one of the summer’s most cinematic movies, “Behind the Candelabra,” opened not in theaters but on HBO?
FOUNDAS: Peter, unlike Justin and Armie Hammer I won’t hold you personally responsible for “The Lone Ranger’s” failed fortunes. Probably that movie was always something of a quixotic undertaking: two-and-a-half-hours, based on a “known” property known mostly to people of our parents’ generation, and directed with an almost stately, measured gait way out of step with the likes of today’s Marvel Comics mega-blockbusters.
But I’ll be damned if “Ranger” didn’t have some utterly lovely things about it — not least among them Johnny Depp’s superb comic performance as Tonto, which was knee-jerk dismissed by a lot of critics as a rehash of his Jack Sparrow routine from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, but which is actually a much more delicate, nuanced piece of work. In fact, it’s one of the best things he’s ever done. Where Sparrow is all brash, rum-soaked comic bravado, Tonto is deadpan and soulful — put there for comic relief, yes, but also projecting the sense of a deeply wounded man seeking cosmic justice. Given every opportunity to overplay, Depp keeps it close to the vest, comes up with marvelous inventions, and totally makes the character his own. He’s especially moving in the framing scenes set in a San Francisco tent circus at the turn of the 20th century, with the image of a half-built Golden Gate Bridge looming in the distance — exactly the sort of lyric touch Verbinski brings to his best passages. As a whole, the movie is wildly uneven, but always trying for something grand, and I’m inclined to agree with Matt Zoller Seitz when he suggests that, like a lot of other famous Hollywood flops before it, “The Lone Ranger” will look better through the prism of time.
And I totally get you, Peter, when you say it’s time Hollywood packed up its tentpoles–not all of them, of course, but the endless, unvaried stream. I was stunned this summer by the number of sequels no one seemed to be clamoring for, to movies I hadn’t even bothered to see the first time around: “Red 2,” “Grown Ups 2,” “Percy Jackson 2,” “Kick-Ass 2.” With the exception of “Grown Ups 2,” those were all big underperformers, suggesting I wasn’t alone in my lack of enthusiasm–and yet, in risk-averse, corporate-controlled Hollywood, they were doubtless easier to get made than any number of more original properties lacking in that much-coveted thing known as “pre-awareness.” Surely some of those same executives are presently scratching their heads wondering why “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” an old-fashioned adult historical drama made for a fraction of a studio-sized budget, scored a studio-sized opening ($24 million), especially when it’s been widely reported that no studio wanted to make the movie, and that its producer, Laura Ziskin, literally spent her dying days journeying hither and yon in search of potential backers. “The Butler” is far from great, but one of the reasons it’s been so warmly received is that it’s injecting some much-needed variety into the homogeneous multiplex environment. “The Conjuring,” another “surprise” summer hit — a backhanded compliment Hollywood likes to pay to movies whose success it doesn’t really understand — made out like a bandit for similar reasons.
CHANG: “The Conjuring” remains, for me, one of the summer’s indelible high points. It wasn’t just the scariest mainstream horror movie to come along in ages but also the giddiest, the most exuberant, the one with the purest understanding of just how much pleasure a skillful director can wring from creaky doors and cobwebbed cellars and all the other musty cliches we associate with the haunted-house thriller. James Wan, a very talented magpie filmmaker, turns the derivative qualities of the genre into a virtue, and his feverish handheld cinematography – all those spooky, swooping tracking shots — suggests a camera possessed by the literal spirit of Robert Altman. I personally can’t wait to see what he does with “Insidious Chapter 2,” to say nothing of “Fast & Furious 7.”
Which, of course, brings us back to sequels, tentpoles and franchises. Let’s give credit where credit is due: Like Scott, I had a blast at “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and I’ll even speak up in mild defense of “Iron Man 3,” which in the hands of director Shane Black brought enough weird, jagged satirical edges and unexpected emotions to the table (the scenes with young Ty Simpkins in wintry Tennessee stick in my memory) to avoid being a totally depersonalized clunkfest. And I would be remiss not to point out that my favorite movie of the summer and the year to date, Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” is of course a sequel — the sort of sequel that exalts the very notion of sequels.
In one of the more amusing moments in the not-very-good but weirdly compelling “Kick-Ass 2,” Kick-Ass is seen wearing a T-shirt that reads “I HATE REBOOTS.” Who doesn’t sympathize? I know none of us was particularly keen on Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot “Man of Steel,” which simply made me long to see a version not just produced but also directed by Christopher Nolan. I’ve already written at length about why, by contrast, “The Wolverine” strikes me as the best of the summer’s many comicbook movies, and that film is, for all intents and purposes, a reboot, albeit one that retains the one element of the franchise that indisputably works (Hugh Jackman). Even “The Lone Ranger” is a reboot, a bold attempt to reclaim a beloved cultural relic and reverse-engineer it into the stuff of modern movie myth. Still, I doubt anyone will be rushing to hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete on that particular property anytime soon.
DEBRUGE: Having written “The Lone Ranger’s” death sentence (I jest), it hardly seems fair to pile on for the autopsy, but I think Johnny Depp’s approach to Tonto was a huge miscalculation — hardly a Jack Sparrow rehash, but the latest invention in the portfolio of hit-and-miss eccentrics for which he’s known. To make Tonto work, he needed to “Jar-Jar Binks it up,” to make the performance bigger and more expressive, so the character wouldn’t disappear under the face paint, stuffed-bird hat and overall crowded surroundings.
“Pacific Rim” faced the same problem, creating a production so massive — with skyscraper-tall mecha duking it out against a rotating gallery of monsters — that it was easy to lose track of the humans that should have made us care more about the story. This is the risk that this new breed of summer movie faces when spectacle becomes the raison d’etre, rather than the added value to a character who grabs your interest from the outset, as Matt Damon did for me in “Elysium.” I’d always felt that “Superman” was the most vanilla of the comicbook champs, but “Man of Steel” merely proved it so.
Even “Star Trek Into Darkness” is guilty of this over-scaled tug-of-war. Watch the film again and you’ll notice that J.J. Abrams is constantly cutting between tight, TV-style closeups of his actors’ faces and bold wide shots crammed with visual effects, with very little middle range. As an audience, it’s extremely disorienting to be jostled between these two extremes, and it makes me long for a storyteller daring enough to commit to the human element — the way that indie director Todd Berger did in his pre-summer aperitif “It’s a Disaster,” which tracks a Los Angeles nuclear meltdown from within the confines of a Sunday brunch.
For a master class in juggling micro characters and macro scale, this summer’s filmmakers should look to poor little “Turbo,” in which a nitrous-charged snail competes in the Indy 500 (an apt metaphor for the low-budget “Before Midnights” and “Blue Jasmines” of the summer). “Turbo” may be DreamWorks Animation’s biggest flop since “Flushed Away,” but it tied “Despicable Me 2” and “Monsters University” with an A-rated Cinemascore, which shows that those who did go loved it as much as I did.
FOUNDAS: I liked “Pacific Rim” more than you, Peter — I thought Guillermo del Toro managed to bring a lot of heart to an ostensibly chilly, mechanized affair, and I loved that dog-looking “kaiju” that gobbled up Ron Perlman. But rather than quibble over its artistic merits, it could be interesting to talk about the movie’s disproportionately large overseas gross (almost $300 million as of this writing) versus the $100 million it did domestically. Those numbers mirror a few other recent movies, like last year’s “Life of Pi” ($124 million domestic versus $484 million international) that haven’t just played better to foreign audiences, but whose fortunes have been made by them. China, which for many years was a highly coveted but largely inaccessible market to Hollywood, has played a key role in this, having recently increased both the quota of Hollywood movies it allows to be released there in a given year and also the share of the box office that goes back to the American distributors. At the same time, a huge uptick in the number of movie theaters in China has made those potential returns all the greater: “Pac Rim” and “Life of Pi” both made over $100 million there. So, it’s no surprise that one of the big stories of the summer was Hollywood’s desire to get further into bed with the Middle Kingdom.
How this will all play out over time remains to be seen. In the short term, there will almost surely be more miscalculated bids at cultural diplomacy like Disney/Marvel’s decision to tack on some irrelevant additional scenes to the Chinese release version of “Iron Man 3,” featuring locally popular stars Wang Xueqi (who’s barely visible in the U.S. version) and Fan Bingbing (who isn’t in the U.S. version at all). But according to multiple reports int he Chinese press, local audiences smelled something fishy here a mile away and would have preferred to see the same version of the movie as the rest of the world. Next summer, another tentpole sequel, “Transformers 4,” will attempt something more substantial, with roles for actress Li Bingbing (“Resident Evil: Retribution”) and pop star Han Geng, plus some smaller parts cast via a reality show on state-run Chinese TV. What is interesting here is that, for better or worse (and hopefully, ultimately, for the better) this increased focus on the international market, and China in particular, does seem to be breeding a new, more diverse breed of Hollywood blockbuster — one that looks, in terms of the faces on screen, more like the world itself.
There’s an interesting anecdote told by director Richard Donner in the wonderful new documentary “Casting By” (currently airing on HBO), about how he initially blanched when his casting director, the legendary Marion Dougherty, proposed Danny Glover for the role of Murtagh in “Lethal Weapon,” because the character, as written in Shane Black’s script, wasn’t expressly identified as black. Well, this summer you had a prominent role for Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi in “Pac Rim” that, like Glover’s “Lethal Weapon” part, could conceivably have been played by an actor of any race. Ditto the revolutionary leader of “Elysium,” wonderfully inhabited by the Brazilian Wagner Moura. “The Wolverine” features a large Japanese supporting cast, but it takes place in Japan, so that’s hardly surprising. But all bets were off in “Fast & Furious 6,” where the Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin upped the ante on an already very diverse cast by prominently featuring a romance between the Korean-American actor Sung Kang and the Israeli actress Gal Gadot — one in which the question of race was never even raised. The lone white guy in that series (Paul Walker) really has become the odd man out at this point, and the movie’s astonishing $785 million worldwide haul (including more than $65 million in China) suggests that the world’s predominately non-white movie audiences are appreciative of this shift.
CHANG: To your list of Asian actors enlivening our summer-movie landscape, I would add the Taiwanese-Malaysian pop star Godfrey Gao, whose guyliner-and-skivvies performance as Brooklyn-based warlock Magnus Bane is one of the few memorable elements of the season’s latest B.O. disappointment, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.” Interestingly, Gao’s casting last year inspired mild outrage from fans of Cassandra Clare’s book series who had been clamoring for Adam Lambert to be cast in the role. But Clare had specifically written Bane as a bisexual warlock of Southeast Asian descent (how’s that for diversity), and she refused to let the role be whitewashed, as so many roles are. Good for her. I can’t help but be reminded of the deeply depressing, profoundly racist responses in some quarters to “The Hunger Games,” which had the audacity to cast an African-American actress, Amandla Stendberg, as a supporting character assumed to be, in the words of the New Yorker’s Anna Holmes, “white until proven otherwise.”
Scott, your account of Disney and Marvel’s misguided attempts to make “Iron Man 3″ as palatable as possible for Western and Eastern audiences reminds me, in a weird way, of the recent contretemps surrounding the U.S. release of Wong Kar Wai’s “The Grandmaster.” I should note that the version the Weinstein Co. is releasing in theaters this weekend, whittled down by nearly 20 minutes from the original Chinese cut (which I haven’t yet managed to see), is a terrific picture. And yet, no less than the doctoring of “Iron Man 3″ for Eastern export, the idea that Wong’s original version had to be streamlined and spelled out for American consumption is sadly indicative of how little the studios respect the intelligence of their prospective audiences, whether in the U.S. or abroad, whether for a mainstream blockbuster or an imported action movie.
Speaking of imported action movies, and to end on a positive note: I walked into “The World’s End” the other day expecting a pretty good time from the blokes who gave us “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” I hardly expected to walk out having seen one of the movies of the year, a satirical tour de force that not only fulfills every expectation of the crazy comedy-action-horror hybrid formula it sets for itself, but also has trenchant and moving things to say about nostalgia, regret, friendship, alcoholism and the often zombified, Stepford-ized nature of 21st-century life as we know it. On top of which it’s by far the smartest, sneakiest post-apocalyptic movie in a season full of ‘em: It beats the very funny but much more uneven “This Is the End”; it beats the monsters-and-metal monotony of “Pacific Rim”; and it sure as hell beats the toothless lefty allegory of “Elysium,” a film that, as smartly unpacked by Alyssa Rosenberg, fails as an ideological call-to-arms because it’s such a lazy piece of storytelling. Incidentally, neither “The World’s End” nor “The Grandmaster” opened until this past Friday, which just goes to show that if you want to see the summer’s best movies, it pays to look past the hype and wait until — well, the end.
FOUNDAS: Justin, I think you’ve pretty well had the last word there, but you did remind me of one summer sequel we haven’t yet mentioned: “Harvey Scissorhands 2: Revenge of the Splicer.” I’m talking, of course, about Harvey Weinstein, who as you noted commissioned a significantly reworked version of “The Grandmaster” for U.S. consumption, at the same time that he was trying to pull a similar number on my own favorite post-apocalyptic movie of the summer: Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” set in a future where a second Ice Age has engulfed the planet and the last human survivors live in the self-sustaining environs of a high-speed luxury train. Bong’s film, his first made in English and with a mostly American and British cast that includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt and Jamie Bell, opened in Korea a month ago to rave reviews and has already grossed over $50 million (more than its budget) at the box office there. But as first revealed by former Variety reporter Don Groves (writing at the Australian website Inside Film), Weinstein, who controls the rights to “Snowpiercer” in North America and other English-speaking territories, is demanding that Bong cut some 20 minutes from the film before he will release it — a scenario supported by the fact that the Weinstein Co. has yet to give the film a release date. (Bong’s film is also conspicuously absent from the lineup of the Toronto Film Festival, though it will screen next month at the Deauville Film Festival in France, a territory where Bong has final cut. Book your tickets now.)
Such tactics were par for the course at the old Miramax, where, in addition to recutting films en masse (hence the “Scissorhands” nickname), Weinstein also acquired many films for distribution only to then suppress them, either because he didn’t want them in the first place (Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece “Through the Oliver Trees” was famously bought only because the French sales company made it a package deal with the movie Harvey really had his sights on, “Muriel’s Wedding”), or because he wanted to remake them in English. These events and others like them are well documented by Jonathan Rosenbaum in his wonderful book “Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See.” But maybe because he had so much else to worry about — like lines of financing — the Harvey of the Weinstein Co.’s early years seemed to have turned over a new leaf where filmmaker autonomy was concerned … until now.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that Wong really did want to recut “The Grandmaster” for non-Chinese audiences, as he did some years ago with “Chungking Express.” He even said as much in a Huffington Post editorial conveniently published last week, just as “The Grandmaster” was going into domestic release, and even more conveniently blasted out en masse to journalists by the TWC publicity team. All of which would have smelled slightly less fishy if it hadn’t been preceded a few weeks earlier by nearly identical comments from “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery, praising Weinstein (who controls foreign distribution on his film) for helping him to trim 10 minutes from the movie following its Sundance premiere. Walter Murch, watch your back.
In the case of “Snowpiercer,” neither TWC nor Bong has publicly commented on the state of affairs (Groves’ story was based on secondhand sources close to the filmmakers, including Asian film expert Tony Rayns). But the notion that an English-language comicbook movie with known stars and a running time just over two hours needs trimming for mass consumption, at a time when Hollywood’s tentpoles routinely exceed the two-and-a-half-hour mark, is sheer folly. A lot of movies are indeed far too long, but this isn’t one of them. Hopefully, by the time we sit down to wrap next year’s summer movie season, “Snowpiercer” will finally have emerged from deep freeze and audiences will be able to judge for themselves.