Last summer I saw pretty much everything that came out. Even the things that weren’t very good were still pretty good (“Terminator: Salvation” ? I’ll buy that). Look at this variety of big-budget quality: “Star Trek,” “The Hangover,” “Up,” “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “Funny People,” “District 9,” “Inglourious Basterds.” Indies? “500 Days of Summer,” “Away We Go,” “Moon,” “The Girlfriend Experience,” sheesh even the eventual Best Picture winner “The Hurt Locker” was a summer movie!
This year the pickings have been slim, slimmer, slimmest. So, who knows, maybe we’re finally seeing the effect of the writer’s strike? To the movie-going-Public’s credit though, many people have stayed away from Clunk-fest 2010. With so many movies coming out, and with cheaper and easier and faster ways to view movies in more formats, it’s understandable that millions of people weren’t compelled to go out to see “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”
For me, it’s turned out that each summer movie month – May through August – has had one vital movie. Here they are:
MAY – “IronMan 2”
Let's Get Dangerous
This is the perfect example of a great summer blockbuster. The movie has huge movie stars, amazing action, and great, snappy dialogue. Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark grows as a character, as the understandable outcome of his hubris is brought into full bloom. What surprised me about the movie was how many good scenes there were between Downey and Sam Rockwell, as his rival. It was a great through-line that propelled both characters. The movie continues to set up “The Avengers,” introducing a few more characters and continuing to develop others. My one qualm was that as much fun as Mickey Rourke was, his fight at the end wasn’t climactic enough. It seemed cut short. Still, the 25 minutes of action that preceded that were great. I think I’m in the minority with this one, but I liked this sequel better than the first.
JUNE – “Toy Story 3”
Welcome to Your New Nightmare
Here is a movie I was not looking forward to. Where could they possibly take the characters this time? What lessons could be learned? I skipped the opening weekend and when I finally settled into my seat, I expected something about as good as “Monsters, Inc.” Oh Pixar, how could I doubt thee? What I got was the best “Toy Story” movie of the trilogy and a perfect ending to the story. Pixar knew what they were doing. In a time when movie sequels are churned out way too fast (“IronMan 2” almost falls into this category itself), this story benefits from time spent apart. This isn’t a “kids movie.” Looking past the façade, the film has important things to say about faith, about where our identity is found. There is real pain, real danger, and oh yes real joy in this movie. There is also a sophistication to the animation that simply astounded me. Look how they render the scene where the rambunctious kids mistreat the toys. Look at the great escape sequence. Look at the increasing stakes and complexity and detail during the climax – visually and emotionally. There is a moment during the climax that filled me with what I can only call a profound hopelessness. Even more brilliantly, the movie doesn’t strand us there and has more to say. But the acknowledgement of that feeling and the way the movie stops there for a few long moments, lets it seep in, is something distinct and commendable. I didn’t know “Toy Story” could do that. I didn’t know its characters had those depths. I didn’t know its creators were as daring and honest as that. It is a moment of realization that registers in every single characters eyes and body language. I don’t know what else to say. This movie took my breath away.
JULY – “Inception” (SPOILERS – come on, you haven’t seen it yet?)
Now, That's a Party
We’ll get one thing out of the way real quickly: the writing in this movie is sub-par. It’s not as bad as in “Avatar,” and I still managed to like that movie for its emotional core. Dissimilarly, “Inception” by-passes its flaws with its remarkable depth of ideas. And yes, both are technical marvels, “Inception” all the more for its un-paralleled use of actual physical space and practical ingenuity. The more I talk about the film, the stronger its knot of ideas becomes. That’s the mark of something good. For anyone not in the know, let’s just say it’s a heist movie set in a controlled subconscious, manipulated to be interpreted by the mark as a dream. Leonardo Dicaprio’s Cobb and his crew aren’t stealing something though, they are planting something. One of the early lines in the movie states that the most powerful parasites are ideas, and the film does a fine job balancing the idea that they are trying to introduce with the one that already has hold of Dicaprio’s character.
Yes, the film would have benefited from a few more messy touches like the freight-train barreling down the city street; a few more instances when Cobb’s sub-conscious asserts itself unexpectedly and abstractly. But writer/director Christopher Nolan has such visual command of his story, of the layers of the dream and plot, that you always know precisely where the movie is taking you. His unique talent is in slyly structuring each of his films to visually mirror the pervading dynamic of their respective stories. He’s also one of the best action directors around. For his writing sins during the first half of the film, he more than atones with a final hour that is perpetually jaw-dropping in its complex achievement. And for those who dislike the final shot of the film, consider while we haven’t before seen the totem wobble, neither have we seen it spin this long without falling. By cutting to black, Nolan isn’t necessarily asking us to choose whether we think it will fall or not. Isn’t it possible that he is rather suggesting something that has changed about his main character – that Cobb’s grasp of his own reality is now uncertain?
AUGUST – “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”
As equally inventive and talented as Christopher Nolan, though very different in tone, Edgar Wright controls every single frame of “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and I loved every second of it. On the surface, the film is a pretty basic love story between Michael Cera’s Scott and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Ramona. But now hold on a second. The movie is really about two people confronting the way they’ve handled relationships in the past. Neither is innocent, Ramona changes guys as fast as hair colors, and Scott’s weepy passive-aggression translates to often mistreating people. That’s what it’s about, which is great, but how the movie is about it (to borrow from Ebert) is what makes it work.
And how it works is this. Scott has to fight Ramona’s Seven Evil Exes (boys and girl) in order to win her heart. Seen through Scott’s influences – which includes an impressive amount of nostalgia for the under-30 crowd – from old school Nintendo to comics of all kinds and “Mortal Kombat,” with awesome rock-n-roll and even some “Seinfeld” in there. Imagine the pop-up imagery from “Zombieland” amped up to 11. Wright fills the screen with clever titlecards, icons and visual onomatopoeia, and the effect could have been overwhelming if the movie depended upon it too much. Instead Cera pulls out all the stops and expands his range a bit, broadening the boundaries and filling out the corners of the persona he’s become known for. The supporting cast is great, the action is exciting and fun and different enough during each fight that it doesn’t stagnate. Wright weaves all these elements together with some really fun music and his knack for telling jokes with the camera, and I found myself relishing in how much fun was being had in front of my eyes and surprised how much I cared about so many of the characters.
NOTE: This movie isn’t doing so well at the box office. Please go see it. It’s the best thing that’s opened all month, and in two weeks, nobody’s going to give one damn about “The Expendables” or “Eat Pray Love.” Do yourself a favor. See this movie.