(From L-R: Brave, The Amazing Spiderman, 21 Jump Street, The Dark Knight Rises, Moonrise Kingdom, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, The Lorax, The Hunger Games, The Avengers.) -Artwork by Jenna Bergstraesser
Rejoice, all ye merry Oberlin culture junkies - the Apollo is coming back, and just in time for the fall movie season! This is always an exciting time of year for me because many of the year’s best films come in these next few months. Certainly most of the Oscar nominees will. All the kids are back in school; time for the grown-ups to go back out to the theater.
And what better way to celebrate this time of year than by looking back at the last time? For all the problems summer film seasons have had recently (I think the strongest one in recent memory was 2008, and even that’s a stretch), this year had a lot of headliners, mostly thanks to big names. Ridley Scott returned to science fiction, Joss Whedon brought the superheroes of Marvel Comics together in one super-blockbuster, and Christopher Nolan bade farewell to his interpretation of the Man Dressed as a Bat. And what do you know - a lot of this summer was good. In the end, I think it did give 2008 (that memorable year of WALL-E, Iron Man, and The Dark Knight) a run for its money.
So if you’re headed towards the still-distant Christmas season with no idea what movies to buy, rent, or skip from the last few months - well, you’re in luck. Here’s a handy guide to various cinematic categories, with as many movies as I could see crammed in there. I stuck in a few from earlier months, too, but really, when March has releases like John Carter and The Hunger Games, I can’t entirely ignore it.
BUY: Moonrise Kingdom
I might as well start out with my pick for the best film of the year so far - Wes Anderson’s newest picture, Moonrise Kingdom. On the eve of a hurricane, an island-dwelling young boy and girl run away from their respective families to be together, prompting a star-studded search for the children before the storm hits. Oh, yes, there are stars - Bruce Willis, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Jason Schwartzman are all here, though the film’s real heart may be found in Edward Norton, a hard-on-his-luck scout leader. The film’s definitely a little odd - the two children are somehow wise beyond their years, thanks in part to their vast imaginations. Yet it’s sweet, too, a chuckle-inducing parody and love letter to storytelling, childhood, and most resonating, for me, boy scouting. The mini military camps are a sight to behold. It’s an adorable little picture, and it’s made with such a love of cinema that I would be surprised if it wasn’t nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. This is this year’s Hugo, released in the slot Midnight in Paris got last year.
RENT: Safety Not Guaranteed
Having seen select episodes of Parks and Recreation, I was familiar with Aubrey Plaza’s portrayal of a deeply snarky, somewhat pessimistic young woman. The character type seemed like it could become easily static, but Safety Not Guaranteed disproved that idea in my mind. This is a story where sarcasm and fun give way gradually to something very sincere, whereas the characters that appear to be taking their jobs seriously are, in fact, not working hard at all. At heart this is a vehicle for Ms. Plaza, but the performances by Jeff Schwensen and Mark Duplass bring the story home. It’s a very small-scale picture, which you might not expect from the time travel premise, but it’s absolutely worth seeing.
SKIP: Seeking a Friend at the End of the World
Steve Carell is fantastic in The Office, but I haven’t seen him do quite so well in dramatic roles. (Well, there’s one exception. He’s pretty good in Little Miss Sunshine, but that’s more or less a comedy anyway.) The problem lies in his brilliant comedic delivery. Michael Scott has a facade of seriousness that seems ready to break out into laughter at a moment’s notice. When Carell holds a poker face through an entire film, it seems to me as if he’s stifling laughter, as if he’s not quite taking the world seriously. He’s so removed from the world that he has a very small emotional presence. The premise of this film is pretty good - apocalyptic romantic black comedy - and I deeply respect it for seeing the promise of doom all the way to the end. Some scenes early on have a great black humor that I missed in the rest of the film. The lead performances, and lack of laughs towards the end, turned me off of this promising film.
BUY: The Secret World of Arrietty
Those familiar with Studio Ghibli and recent hits such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle will recognize the animation style of this film immediately. Miyazaki himself, the genius behind those two films, takes over co-scripting duties here, and it’s by no means his best film. Still, it is lovely. Arrietty is based off of the popular Borrowers children’s book series. The melancholic theme that ended Spirited Away, of the impermanence of human relationships, takes over the entire film here, and it makes for some genuinely heartbreaking scenes. The enlarged house and garden are beautiful onscreen - the animators really nailed the look of individual leaves and blades of grass moving in the wind, not to mention magnified water droplets. Arrietty surprises with its presence of an unambiguous villain, unusual for Ghibli, but that doesn’t distract greatly from the obvious craft and love poured into the movie.
RENT: The Pirates! Band of Misfits
If you like Aardman Studios’ traditional brand of humor - that which shows up in Chicken Run, Flushed Away, and the Wallace and Gromit shorts - you’ll like Band of Misfits, which has those films’ same subversive, dry British tone. As with Arrietty, Pirates is not the studio’s strongest film, only a little unfortunate due to the hilarious source material. Yet it is refreshing to see a pirate movie that doesn’t involved Indiana Jones-style mystical cults and magical artifacts. To those not disturbed by the handmade look of Pirates, the film is definitely worth a watch.
Oh, how it pains me to put a Pixar film here. But for the second year in a row, Pixar’s yearly film is unlikely to be nominated for Best Picture Oscar, or even win the Best Animated Feature category. Brave is not a princess story, but it is quite reminiscent of another recent Disney feature, which if named would present significant spoilers to the plot. It goes without saying that the film is beautiful, and Merida’s hair - so touted in publicity - does look great. But Brave stumbles again and again. The relationship between Merida and her mother is one-dimensional and doesn’t seem to be easily salvaged; the priority of comedy over dramatic integrity, which also presented problems in Ratatouille, undermines the film’s seriousness instead of merely poking fun at it like Shrek did; and only a couple of characters are really developed at all. The directors and writers behind the film aren’t the regular Pixar talent (John Lasseter, Pete Doctor, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, etc.), which I hopefully blame as part of the film’s problem. Anyway, the best animated Disney heroine picture of the decade has already been made; your time would be better spent rewatching Tangled.
BUY: 21 Jump Street
Where the heck did this film come from? Two of my least favorite genres - buddy comedy and explosion-fueled brainless action movie - mash together to create 21 Jump Street, a buddy cop film wherein two undercover cops infiltrate a high school. Problem is, they get their cards mixed up, and the jock has to play the science kid while the nerd has to pretend to be popular. And this works really well. The high school films and shows most people grew up on - that is, those made in the 80s and early 90s, like for example the original 21 Jump Street - are now outdated. Tolerance is cool and the nerds run the universe, if behind the scenes. It’s a funny and subversive take on high school films, not to mention the basic subversive action movie tropes you might see in (say) The Other Guys are really well done here. (“I really thought that [propane-filled] truck was gonna blow up.”) If this film could win me over, it can win over anybody.
RENT: Rock of Ages
Every summer has its bad movie (usually multiple), and every summer has its musical. Only about half the time are they combined, but this time it worked spectacularly. Because Rock of Ages is wonderfully, gloriously bad. In an age of Glee, the jukebox musical is nothing new, though such a star-studded one might be. It’s all wholly uninspired casting - Paul Giamiatti plays the slimy assistant, Malin Akerman is the sex object, Catherine Zeta-Jones is the feminist, Tom Cruise is the washed-up superstar, and the two leads are adorable and half-decent at singing. The real surprise is Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand as co-owners of a club, who eventually start a romance in the film’s most hilarious number. They milk it for all its worth, as does everyone else. The sense of energy lifts the film (this saved Newsies), while the horrible acting and writing bring it crashing to the ground. That combination makes something very watchable. Recommended viewing with other people, though, so you can make snide comments at it.
If you thought you’d seen the most boring action film of the decade with last year’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, you thought wrong. Battleship is near constant explosions - and when nothing’s exploding, a sickeningly sweet attitude towards American patriotism overruns the film. The rampant destruction is a little unsettling, particularly in the glee these people find in it. And again, nobody is interesting in this, and none of the writing holds any spark. At least Transformers tried for a funny line every now and again!
BUY: The Hunger Games
Let me very clearly establish my position on this one: I thought the book was… okay. It’s kind of an odd premise - killing children seems like sort of like a strategy for keeping people in line that would backfire. The Battle Royale-lite setting held promise, but was overrun with mildly repetitive prose from the mind of Katniss Everdeen. And as it must, the survival story eventually gave way to a love story, which wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. It was mildly promising but very uneven, and I wasn’t really motivated to pick up book two.
The filmic version, though, makes me want to see the sequel immediately. Maybe this is due to their excellent foreshadowing of future events - riots begin in one district before the movie’s two-thirds over. Maybe it’s due to the sense of a larger story that begins to emerge, helped via scenes with the leader of Panem. But I think overall the story is told more smoothly than the book, even though the premise remains perplexing. Jennifer Lawrence is perfect as Katniss, of course, but she doesn’t just reprise her role from Winter’s Bone, which she very well could have done - there’s a darkness to Katniss that Ru didn’t quite have. Meanwhile, the film integrates the audience very well into the reality show of the Games, allowing commentators to speak directly to us as events progress. Impressively, for a PG-13 film the gore is not downplayed; the opening seconds of the Games are some of the film’s most chilling. It’s a very strong film on its own, and certainly a good adaptation as well, which is a line many adaptations struggle to stride. Definitely looking forward to the next one.
RENT: John Carter
This film was undeserved of its critical panning and box office failures. That said, nor was it worthy of Avatar-level revenues (though to be fair, I’m unconvinced Avatar itself was worthy of Avatar-level revenues), and with a budget of this size that might have been what they were going for. I see the film as quite an interesting experiment: a clearly pulp fiction tale, tweaked a little to tone down the sexism and racism (but not eliminate either completely), and then told with a large modern-day visual effects budget. It’s not great, but it’s sincere and silly. And I had more fun with this than I did with Avatar, when I think about it. Too bad Andrew Stanton’s live-action debut didn’t match Brad Bird’s incomparable Mission Impossible outing, though.
SKIP: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax
I’m going to cheat on this one - I haven’t seen this film, but I needed to fill out the literary adaptations category. Still, the review at the link below is a very perceptive piece of criticism, whatever its accuracy. http://blip.tv/nostalgia-chick/nostalgia-chick-the-lorax-6016490
SCI-FI SUMMER TENTPOLES
BUY: The Avengers
For a movie Marvel sank millions of dollars and five prequels into (after all, a huge reason films like Iron Man and Thor even exist was for this one movie), this one damn well better have worked, cause Marvel was betting a lot on it. And work it did. It always would have, really, because a live-action version of the Marvel Universe, where heroes cross over into each other’s titles on a weekly basis, is something many comic nerds would chop off their limbs for. Myself included. And since this film had so much hype (and five prequels) going into it, many people would have turned out just to see if it could be done. (This is why a Justice League movie would probably not be quite so successful - the novelty was a big factor in the huge box office for The Avengers.)
But not only did this film work, it worked brilliantly. I mean that as a fan and as a moviegoer. The film is action-packed from the beginning, but unlike (say) Battleship, the point of everything is always obvious. There are great and funny characters bouncing off of each other, and to the loyal Marvel viewer, The Avengers is the logical next step in the characterization of every single hero here. That’s a very difficult thing to do.
And not that this should make or break a film, but the effects really are spectacular. Early trailers had very few of them, and the shots looked barren, but the power of these heroes and their villains is brought to life, and the threat seems real - like something only six super-powered heroes could take down together. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s pretty great.
For me, this was unambiguously the best science fiction film of the summer. It presents a weird premise - humans share the genetic material of an alien Engineer race - along with some hefty theological questions. Where do we come from, and what is our purpose? Against this backdrop, Prometheus is action, horror, and intellectual sci-fi; the best of the first two Alien films, with 2001 and the musical feel of Blade Runner sprinkled in for good measure. Most intriguingly, many of those questions it asks are left unanswered, though the film expands upon those ideas through thematic and human connections that grow in the story. I liked it because you left the theater thinking about those ideas. Oh, and it’s pretty, too.
So, I enjoyed it. But the response from most people has been more measured, and on reflection I see some of their points. For all its ambition, Prometheus spreads itself just a little too thin. Some developments don’t further the plot, but the themes, leading to many scenes that appear to have no purpose. And while the movie may feature homages to previous science fiction films, its basic plot beats are largely copied from the original Alien film. In my mind, this makes sense; between the two films, director Ridley Scott establishes a vocabulary of events, and links the two inexorably. History repeats itself. But to a fan of the original, Prometheus may be a bit too repetitive. Still, the film sparked discussion, and the degree to which people like this vary wildly, so check it out - I can’t honestly predict what side of the spectrum you might be on.
RENT: The Amazing Spider-Man
None of the four big summer tentpoles were by any means bad, so I’m eschewing a “Skip” category here. (The fourth is relegated to the next category.) The Amazing Spider-Man does perplex me the most of them all, though. Here is a film, which, only five years after the last one in the franchise, reboots the Spider-Man story with an entirely new creative team, and pulls off most of the important elements better than the original trilogy. The writing is more believable, the cast is filled with better and more charismatic actors, Spider-Man’s fights feel less like two rubber CGI models punching each other, and the origin story is more nuanced than any other one so far, including the comic universe canon origin. But even with all of those qualities, Spider-Man 2 remains my favorite Spidey movie. I think that’s because Amazing takes itself very seriously. There are plenty of funny moments, and the Peter Parker / Gwen Stacy dynamic is a superb touch of lightness, but both are contrasted with a constantly brooding teenager. Think of the first Harry Potter film. It may have been inferior to its sequels, but there was a sense of wonder not quite matched by further installments. The story of The Amazing Spider-Man is pretty good, but the elements don’t come together as smoothly as I’d hoped. Not to say it’s bad - I do think it’s the second-best Spider-Man, and is worth a watch.
BUY: The Dark Knight Rises
And so Nolan’s Batman trilogy comes to an end. That sentence is a bit deceiving, though; The Dark Knight Rises is the only film of Nolan’s movies that is intended as a moment within a larger story. Batman Begins is a revamped origin story; The Dark Knight is a logical progression involving the Joker and Two-Face, but as a middle installment it hardly forwards a three-movie plot. There’s another way to consider Rises: a sequel to both Begins and Dark Knight, since plot threads from both (the League of Shadows and Batman’s ostracization from Gotham among them) are continued and concluded here.
This is bigger in scope than the other two films, which is just a little reminiscent of the planet apocalypse-centric The Avengers. It is longer, as well. After the success of Batman Begins, my theory is that the Nolan brothers had less and less editorial influence. Begins is often quite funny in a way that its two sequels aren’t. So this film takes itself pretty seriously. But there is plenty of good here. Catwoman, Bane, and particularly Gotham cop Jonathan Blake are fun and well-realized characters, very worthy additions to the Nolan mythos. Of the previously established cast, Batman and Alfred have the most interesting character development, with Alfred having grown weary of Wayne’s daredevil stunts, and Batman attempting a comeback after eight years away from the job.
As for the politics, they’re complicated, which is why this film is a must-see of this category. There is an Occupy Wall Street-like movement led by Gotham prisoners and lower-class, or perhaps it’s closer to the French Revolution. And the fat cats of Gotham aren’t helping much either. It’s all quite muddled, but like Prometheus, untangling the problems seems to be part of the point; that’s how it is in real life, after all. If you want an intellectual blockbuster, as usual, Nolan isn’t a bad place to look.
RENT: The Campaign
Again, this film surprised me, because raunchy comedies and I don’t mix. But this one had the added benefit of being politically timely, thanks to the theater of the 2012 campaigns being in full swing when it was released. If you like The Daily Show, there’s a good chance you’ll like this, because some of the gags are familiar. That the campaigns are worried more about presentation than about substance, that the political system is driven by money rather than ideals. But Zach Galifianakis provides heart. He is weird, but there’s a warm squishy center to him that surfaces every so often, unlike some of his other roles where he never seems to exist on the same plane of existence. Will Ferrell tones down his usual shtick (see Talladega Nights or Blades of Glory) to become an outrageous candidate with no respect for personal space. The film may be depressing to some, but it looks closely at current campaign problems and laughs at them, which I believe to be a very healthy response.
SKIP: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
This isn’t actually politics. Never mind.
THE TOP 5 FILMS I MISSED BUT INTEND TO SEE LATER
Beasts of the Southern Wild
To Rome with Love
The Cabin in the Woods
Men in Black 3