AUGUST 21, 2003
Quality vs. Explosions:
The Summer Movie Challenge
By Jeremy Mathews

f there’s one tip that the Hollywood studios should take from this and several other recent summers, it’s a simple one: Start making adult films at the same level of intelligence as the children’s films. Box office reports, which don’t even account for discounted children tickets, show that the Disney/Pixar computer animated production "Finding Nemo" has pulled in more money than any other film this summer. It also has the strongest staying power, much like 2001’s "Shrek."

Ignoring the financial power, the film is still an excellent work. Its colorful animation is stunning and the voice work by Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres is impressive. And the jokes aren’t even as painfully cutesy as those in Pixar’s “Toy Story” films. Strong word-of-mouth comes from this level of quality, which makes you wonder why most films simply go for big ad campaigns in an attempt to bring people to see the film on the first weekend and then forget about it until the sequel comes out in a year or two.

Summer is indeed the season for bloated, big-budget films. People don’t even need to watch for too many prestige films, which are generally saved for the end-of the-year Oscar race. This is when studios roll out the sequels and prequels and the action extravaganzas. There are occasional artistic achievements, like last year’s "Minority Report" and 2001’s "Moulin Rouge," but most of the releases are calculated exercises based on studies of what 13-year-old boys like.

One of the most daring summer films is Gary Ross’ "Seabiscuit.” The film not only has no explosions and one-liners for the 13-year-old boys, but also has no big romance for the 13-year-old girls. It’s about a horse, folks. Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire and Chris Cooper all put in impressively authentic performances in the story of an underdog horse, a jockey who’s too large, an old, forgotten trainer and the millionaire who gave them a chance to be winners. The millionaire’s need to win might be a bit off-putting, but Ross plays all the sentimental notes with virtuosity.

But enough about the art stuff— let’s get to what the summer is really about. The action extravaganza has always been the meat of the summer film, and this year saw several previous action hits add new volumes to their stories, for better or worse.

The Wachowski brothers’ “The Matrix Reloaded,” the first of two sequels coming out this year, was a well-made action film that, despite bringing in more than $200 million, didn’t generate the same audience excitement as the first film, mainly because the story was more conventional and the once eye-popping techniques of the first film have been imitated many times over by now.

Arnold Schwarzenegger got to say “I’m back” yet again in “Terminator 3,” which was a mundane addition to the series. The film had some inspired scenes, but failed to reach the emotional impact of the first two films. It instead just repeated some old jokes and had a woman as the villain. Young actors Claire Danes and Nick Stahl were effective in their roles, however.

Only comic-book geeks might have preferred the disjointed, ill structured “X-Men” to “X2,” a lively, if still rather incoherent, collection of impressive and original action sequences.

Angelina Jolie and her computer-accented boobs returned for “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.”

“Boyz ’N the Hood” director John Singleton took a break from socially conscious films for “2 Fast 2 Furious,” a Vin Diesel-less sequel to “The Fast and the Furious” that has a lot of inventive, if ridiculous, car chases that make for good action fun.

The next-best thing to a sequel is a film based on an amusement park ride. Gore Verbinsky’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” proved that Johnny Depp can support a film with a completely unexpected performance as some sort of drunk, Keith Richards-like pirate—as long as the film isn’t more than two hours long, as this one is. Argh.

And the other way to not come up with your own movie is to remake a well-loved British caper film, as F. Gary Gray did with “The Italian Job,” starring Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron and a Mini Coop.

One might wonder how the Marvel comic remake mania (“X2,” “Daredevil”) didn’t translate to make “Hulk” a big hit like “Spider Man.” Both films were based on Marvel heroes, both had bad computer-generated effects. The difference, I guess, is that in making "Hulk," director Ang Lee aspired to more dramatic and stylistic depths, but still put in all the bloated special effects that were expected, alienating both audiences. Sam Raimi’s "Spider Man," on the other hand, stayed true to its comic book silliness, which is perhaps what people want out of a summer movie.

The nonsense of Sean Connery- starrer “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman,” however, proved to be too nonsensical and not enough fun for even the nonsense-loving nonsensical filmgoer to enjoy the film’s nonsense. Plus, it’s also based on a comic book, bringing the grand total of films based on original ideas to zero.

Ha Ha, Part 2
Most of the action sequels were at least entertaining, but most of the comedies, well…weren’t. Let’s see what we learned in a comedy sequel lighting round.

“Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde” taught us that a film whose saving grace is a splendid performance from Reese Witherspoon doesn’t require further character exploration in a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” knockoff.

McG showed that he still has no idea how to direct a lame nonsensical parody that looks like a bad music video with “Charlie’s Angel’s: Full-Throttle,” which is almost exactly like the first film.

Actually a prequel, “Dumb and Dumberer” showed that if the original stars and writer/directors have absolutely nothing to do with an attempt to revive a franchise, the franchise probably won’t be revived. And while “American Wedding” shows that even when half the cast of “American Pie” wants no part in a third movie, the third movie can still happen and be a tad amusing, although the franchise is definately getting tired.

There are some original concepts in summer comedies, although nothing that’s come out so far has really broken the hilarity barrier.

Jim Carrey took a break from trying to get nominated for an Oscar and had fun putting his energy into the standard comedy “Bruce Almighty.”

The best Hollywood comedy wasn’t really suited to summer. Ewan MacGregor and Renée Zellweger were both excellent in “Down With Love,” a tribute to ’60s sex comedies.

It might be a stretch to classify Rowan Atkinson vehicle "Johnny English” as an original idea. As a spy spoof, it’s harmless and mundane, going where other parodies have gone before and not allowing Atkinson to really demonstrate his talents.

I’m still not sure if the Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett film “Hollywood Homicide” is a comedy or an action-comedy—nor were the marketing people, who couldn’t get anyone to see it. But since the comedic elements are the ones that worked, it goes in this category.

“Alex and Emma” served as a reminder of how the mighty have fallen. Rob Reiner, who directed some excellent romantic comedies in the past, fell completely flat telling a story of an author (Luke Wilson) who hires a stenographer (Kate Hudson) to dictate his horrible novel to so that he can pay back his gambling debt. And what of Kate Hudson, who almost won an Oscar two years ago and has since been in this and the pitiful “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”?

Kids Who Didn’t Find Nemo
Despite “Finding Nemo,” the selections for children weren’t as strong as in past years. Unless, that is, you count the spring summer border film “Holes,” a complicated, funny film that tells multiple stories and doesn’t rely on overdone humor to deal with issues like racism and juvenile detention abuse through forced hole-digging.

Another live-action piece is “Spy Kids 3-D,” which sends its heroes inside a 3-D videogame and requires the audience to wear glasses as well.

The capable Dreamworks animation team made the mistake of marketing a film to an age group that wants to stop watching cartoons, making “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” and its star-studded voice cast disappear with little notice. Still, it’s a well-made film.

On the other hand, “Rugrats Go Wild!” is a low-quality animation that combines characters from two Nickelodeon TV shows. And who could forget the latest “Pokemon” film? Oh.

Art? In the Summer?
While the Tower Theatre closed down due to a broken air conditioner, its sister art-house cinema at the Broadway Centre, also operated by the Salt Lake Film Society, continued to show interesting and challenging films, despite the heat. While it might not be standard summer fare, I’d be neglecting my duties if I didn’t mention some art-house highlights.

Shari Springer Berman’s and Robert Pulcini’s brilliant “American Splendor” tells the life story of comic-book writer Harvey Pekar and combines documentary and archival footage of the real-life people with excellent dramatizations. It allows the actors to be compared with the people they represent, and perfectly captures the attitude of Pekar’s work.

The biggest breakthrough hit this year has been Niki Caro’s “Whale Rider,” a touching film from New Zealand about a girl who has all the qualities to become the chief of her Maori tribe. Caro uses this dynamic to create a parable about cultural change that transcends any trite politics with masterfully realized characters.

French director François Ozon’s English-language “Swimming Pool” stars Charlotte Rampling in a strong performance as an English mystery writer who travels to her publisher’s vacation home in the French countryside. Unfortunately, his daughter Julie arrives at the house—and brings a new man every night. At first she’s distracted and can’t work, but soon finds inspiration in the girl as the film hints at its own mysteries.

Jeffrey Blitz’s documentary “Spellbound” is a fascinating and suspenseful look into the high pressure world of spelling bees. It follows multiple young participants and reveals their aspirations—or lack thereof.

Master French director Patrice Leconte’s “The Man on the Train” is another example of Leconte’s joyous, energetic storytelling. Jean Rochefort and French music icon Johnny Hallyday star as two men—one a small town man and one a thief—who realize that they wish they lived each others’ lives.

Perhaps the thing that drew people to Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” is that it isn’t a sequel to Sandra Bullock’s drug-recovery film, but an independent, digitally shot hand-held zombie film about a freaky, instant virus.

“Winged Migration” is a visually astounding documentary that follows a flock of birds through the trials of migration with impressive camerawork.

If nothing else, you might want to look for some of these treasures once the weather cools off.


  Quality vs. Explosions: The Summer Movie Challenge  
  RED herring!  
  RED Through the Ages  



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