Movie Reflection- June Gloom: Mutants, Prequels, Aliens, Sequels; For a Generation of Advanced Visual Effects We’re Devolving in the Realm of Storytelling
It’s been difficult to sit through the films this past June and not be irritated at the mediocrity that continuously finds its way onto the screen. Even with more intriguing directors such as JJ Abrams and Matthew Vaughn at the helm of some of the better films this month there was still a great deal missing in all the films on the big screen. The month started off with a promising start as Matthew Vaughn explored an incredibly inaccurate but mildly interesting origin of the X-Men mutants in his prequel X-Men: First Class. But from there it just seemed as though everything was getting exponentially worse. Even in the independent film department there was little to save us from the stench of Pixar’s first critical flop and the special effects saturated DC adaptation of The Green Lantern. Most of these films have expected results, such as the third installment of Transformers that fortunately passes the kindergarten level standard the second one set. But the memorable films, the ones that truly stand out and can be revisited, are those that strive to do something different. Take last year’s hit Christopher Nolan’s overrated espionage thriller set in the supposedly free realm of dreams, Inception. This was a film that had the slightest bit of originality and the most boring dreams to ever be put on the big screen yet people flocked to it and embraced it due to Nolan’s attempt to do something slightly unconventional in comparison to other blockbusters. We need to look past the formulas that have been concocted that have just enough effort put into the story writing to get desperate audience attendees into the theater. But let’s just look at why each film so far this June exemplifies the wrong direction of filmmaking.
Opening up June was Matthew Vaughn’s origin tale on the X-Men entitled X-Men: First Class. Following his superb adaptation of the comic Kick-Ass it seemed as though Vaughn could be a promising guide for another unneeded X-Men film. Borrowing loosely from the comic’s origins and mixing in a few ridiculous characters from some comic storylines written in the last few years, Vaughn is able to make the two most interesting mutants, Magneto and Professor X, into a spectacle worth watching. Casting two very capable actors, including the great up and comer Michael Fassbender and the charming James McAvoy, Vaughn utilizes their strengths to show two very different ideologies and emotions battling each other on the screen. It’s captivating when they’re together and you miss it when they get separated. But for every good decision Vaughn makes there is an equally bad decision. Some of the younger and more inexperienced actors weigh the film down, including January Jones whose Stepford Wife awkwardness works well on “Mad Men” but falls uncomfortably flat as the telepathic mutant Emma Frost. Seriously, a corpse has more varying emotions. While the action sequence featuring the teleporter Azazel is tactfully done, there are some other action sequences featuring either Banshee or Angel that could have used some work (they end up being a tad laughable). All in all it started off June in a relatively positive direction even though it could have used a bit less of the Marvel superhero genre formula leaving us with the hope of a Pixar film and a JJ Abrams thriller to keep us going. However, that hope was quickly eliminated after the credits rolled on Abrams’ Super 8.
Super 8 didn’t know what it wanted to be. Well, perhaps Abrams wanted to make his own Alien version of Jaws as a tribute to his producer on the project Steven Spielberg. But then Spielberg wanted to pay tribute to himself making the alien a misunderstood creature who just wanted to phone home. Ultimately it’s a project that phones it in due to its duality in tone that can be directly attributed to the conflicting ideas from the producer and the director. There are definitely some well-done action sequences, such as the frantic train crash, or the suspense driven sequences that utilize the unknown in the same inspiration that Spielberg used in Jaws to pay homage to his predecessor Alfred Hitchcock who was the ultimate master of suspense. But really an alien that attacks people, captures most, and kills in some cases (even innocent ones) and then is explained away as he’s scared and just wants to go home takes away all audience investment into the mystery adventure story that was unfolding. Perhaps this is being a tad harsh on Super 8 since it does have good casting, entertaining action, and a touching dedication to the art of filmmaking. However, the narrative is another concoction of clichés, formulaic progression, and unoriginal scenarios. It certainly isn’t one of the worst summer blockbusters ever made but it definitely can be counted as one of the more schizophrenic films that have been released in the summer. It was JJ Abrams chance to bring us that summer blockbuster that was slightly different from the rest and instead he traded that possibility of artistic credibility in when he partnered up with Spielberg.
At this point most real film goers would have turned to the independent releases to find something relatively different. Unfortunately it hasn’t been the greatest release month for sleeper releases as it has been years before. Two years ago we were treated to the Oscar Winner for Best Picture in June called The Hurt Locker. Last year Oscar nominee for Best Picture Winter’s Bone surprised audiences with its gritty and haunting themes. This year there has been a quirky coming of age film entitled Submarine, a typical indie release known as Beginners, and a politically charged yet emotionally resonant film called A Better Life. Submarine was a delightful look at a teenage boy, sexuality, his parent’s distancing relationship, and was done rather well from first time director Richard Ayoade. The lead played by Craig Roberts reminds us of a young Bud Cort in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude as the film pays tribute to the aforementioned film as well as some other memorable 70s films such as Don’t Look Now. It was a tad refreshing considering the films that were soon going to be released later in the month. However, after seeing the next indie release Beginners there wasn’t much hope that we’d be seeing anything extraordinary this month from the independent releases. Beginners explored the relationship between a son and his new openly gay father and how it affects his own relationships including the one he currently is attempting. Considering that the entire film needed a dose of Prozac and had an abysmal pacing problem it was a tough movie to get into. Luckily Christopher Plummer was charming and lively enough to give us a reason to sit through the rest of the unsympathetic relationship problems and unnecessary political undertones to a film that could have portrayed its message better without it. And finally there was A Better Life, which is sort of like The Bicycle Thieves but involving an illegal immigrant trying to give his son the opportunities in life he never had. It’s emotionally captivating despite its political underpinnings but still doesn’t grab you like Sin Nombre did a few years ago. Of course two of these films were definitely better than most of the blockbusters, but they still failed to really stand out among other independent films released in the past couple of years.
Moving on to the next ridiculous and special effects saturated comic book film entitled The Green Lantern. If X-Men: First Class revived any sort of hope that comic book films could be interesting again The Green Lantern killed any such possibility with only a couple of easy strokes. First of all the exposition setting up the entire Green Lantern origin is done in such an insipid fashion that it’s difficult for the film to take off from that point (ironically the protagonist is an Air Force pilot). It borrows a familiar superhero narrative formula that is overused by now and does it shamelessly. At one point one of the characters even makes a blatant reference about the superhero guy getting the girl in the end, so gee don’t you wonder what happens after that. Luckily Ryan Reynolds’ charm gives some kick to this beaten dead horse of a film enough that you won’t feel dirty and abused when leaving the theater. For a film that deals with the powers of Will and Fear it certainly frightens you how horrible it is and challenges your will trying not to leave the theater. Let’s just hope that at some point the superhero genre will go through a re-development period that requires some actual ingenuity, classical themes, and retires the incessant need for awful, recycled humor.
This is typical for the summer movie releases and usually at this point every year there is a Pixar film waiting behind the corner to lift our spirits with their dedication to complex characters, sweet stories that involve moral tales, and humor that transcends a children’s level of intelligence and allows the family of all ages to participate. This summer, however, offered us the unnecessary sequel to Pixar’s worst film up to this point, Cars. Don’t get me wrong, the first Cars isn’t necessarily a bad film it just doesn’t have the charm or the all-encompassing messages that the other Pixar films embraced. It’s just that Cars 2 is just plain bad. It has a predictable spy story, unfunny lines that are focused on child appeasing visuals and silly phrasings, and a switched protagonist to Mater the Tow Truck because he’s popular with children. There are many reasons why director John Lasseter took this direction for what we all know to be an unnecessary sequel. Lasseter is too close to the subject matter because old, classic cars are his passion. That’s the reason he wanted to make Cars in the first place and no one had the nerve to tell him it just wasn’t a very good idea. But no one would have dared to say anything about the new Cars because it’s now a billion dollar toy franchise. Kids adore this film and collect toys, lunch boxes, stuffed animals, and the DVDs. The unfortunate fact is that Cars 2 plays out like a typical children’s animated film which is the kind of work that DreamWorks is normally connected to. This time, however, DreamWorks has produced far better products in animation and characters which isn’t a good sign for Pixar’s potential future. You might say this is a fluke and it was bound to happen so let’s just hope that next year’s original production will set them back on the path they were traveling with such leisure.
And last on the reluctant list of film’s to see this June was the third installment of Transformers this time called Dark of the Moon. Michael Bay insists he’s an old school filmmaker but we can actually blame him for the direction modern films have gone. His action blockbusters in the 90s, such as Armageddon and The Rock, put us on a path of spectacle and experience rather than storyline connection and character sympathies. Granted those first examples do indeed have interesting characters, but one thing is certain and that is Michael Bay’s emphasis on special effects has certainly influenced the reliance on them for action films. Can he be blamed for the fact that the least common denominator of entertainment demands these special effects? Let’s give him credit where credit is due with just how good those special effects do look. But there are just simply too much special effects and the Transformers films usually get chaotic and blurry because of how relentless the barrages of effects are in his movies. Luckily the third movie isn’t as bad as the second one, though that is an extremely low bar to surpass. The action is typical and the patriotic message this time around is a tad clearer as the villain professes his utilitarian views on justice. It’s just Transformers is exactly what you expect it to be and while that is greatly entertaining for some it isn’t at all attempting to be that something new that audiences are thirsting to have. The best aspect of Transformers: Dark of the Moon is that it’s most likely the final chapter in these special effects bloated action films that provide the most inappropriate uses of 6th grade humor that can be witnessed (small alien bots who use ridiculous sexual innuendos).
Perhaps 2011 will beat 2010 as the proclaimed worst year for movies. It’s certainly on its way with competitive drivel releases this year such as No Strings Attached, Just Go With It, and Sucker Punch. The writing for studio releases is getting exponentially worse because of a Writer’s Guild that doesn’t honor or appreciate good writing but rather is focused on protecting the writers of Gigli and Norbit from getting unfairly treated. When will we learn we’ve set up a system that honors mediocrity instead of legitimate creativity? That isn’t the Hollywood that we used to know; the Hollywood that made Gone with the Wind, Rear Window, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Maybe it’s just a new age and we all need to adapt with the times and learn new tricks in order to bring about the old way of telling stories. When the Academy Awards is debating after two years to diminish the Best Picture category back to only 5 choices you know there aren’t enough objectively good movies out there. We all have different tastes but hopefully they won’t force us to downgrade our pallets just because they’re comfortable with putting less and less effort into their productions. But what do you think? Are we on our way to setting a new low for filmmaking quality in the year of 2011? Or is there more to look forward to?