Thursday, September 06, 2007

Summer Movie Report Card

The first thing you'll notice, on reading this, is how much earlier "summer" begins for summer movies than it used to: Ghost Rider, the first entry on the list, came out in February, which was (at least in Minnesota) about as far from "summery" as you can get. But since you need that week of space all to yourself in order to get that all-important high first-weekend gross, well...needs must when the devil drives, I suppose.

The second thing to notice is just how many movies I wound up seeing; this was a big summer for movies, a sort of box-office El Nino that happens once every few years where every week brought a must-see movie. (Hollywood's been hoping for one of these for a while, now, but when you make a movie like 'Hulk', you really only have yourself to blame.) When I looked at the "upcoming movies", I saw a treasure trove of summer-time excitement...was I disappointed? Read on!

Ghost Rider: B-. This should probably be a C+, to be honest, but I'm giving it an easy grade because the movie had a good sense of humor about itself, and a nice visual design sense, which made it easier to overlook the plot-silliness and slightly hammy acting. Plus, I wasn't expecting a ton from it, so yes, I was grading on a curve.

300: D+. Would have been a B-, save for the political subtext that rammed itself down my throat when all I wanted was a good old-fashioned action movie. (You may remember me commenting as much at the time.) Still, it didn't hurt my overall summer expectations, as it was really more of an afterthought next to 'Spider-Man 3', 'Fantastic Four 2', 'Transformers', and 'Grindhouse'.

TMNT: B. Actually, it starts out as a C, but the last half-hour or so is solid A material, so I decided to average out the film's grade. The film spends a long while dealing with the reunion of the Turtles and their working out their dysfunctional family issues, which left me thinking a) "Didn't we see this in the first 'TMNT' movie?" and b) "Didn't we see this in 'Ghostbusters 2'?" But the climax gets in plenty of action, good one-liners, and left me smiling. (Worst trailers before the movie ever, though. My room-mate actually shouted, "There is no GOD!" when he saw the 'Underdog' preview.)

Grindhouse: B. I'm probably grading this low, and that's probably because I did a poor job of expectation management (got my hopes up too high, so that it was impossible for the movie to be as good as my expectations for it.) But really, the Tarantino movie was a C+, slow and talky, and the Rodriguez movie was still only a B+, thanks to Rose McGowan's wooden acting dragging down the average. The fake trailers tipped it from a B- to a B, but for one of the tentpole movies of my summer movie expectations, it really didn't quite get it done. (I still saw it twice, though. And I'll still buy the DVD, just for "Don't".)

Hot Fuzz: A+. Unquestionably the movie that wrecks the curve for everyone else, this movie does for cop movies what 'Shaun of the Dead' did for zombie movies. I hate that sentence, because it's such a trite phrase and will no doubt be on the DVD sleeve somewhere, but that really is the most accurate way to describe the film--it takes the ideas and tropes of an American genre, and applies them to the small-scale human-interest stories British film and TV turn out. The result is absolutely brilliant (and all the more so because Simon Pegg drop-kicks an old lady in the head.)

Spider-Man 3: A-. I can, if I look, see flaws in the film (which is why it's an A- and not an A.) But I really think that most of the people who came out of this hating it either a) did a poor job of expectation management, or b) were gunning for it, because the third movie is usually where the backlash comes in. (Although it's easier to hate the third movie of a series when it's "Batman Forever".) Me, I thought it was fun, I thought it used its characters pretty well (save for Sandman, whose team-up with Venom at the end seemed to come out of nowhere), and I thought it bore the standard set by the first two movies better than any "third movie" you'd care to name. ('Godfather 3'? 'Matrix: Revolutions'? 'X-Men: The Last Stand'? 'Superman III'? OK, 'Army of Darkness' beats it. Still, they are both Sam Raimi movies.)

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End: C+. I think I just broke my niece's heart, but really, this was entertaining enough...but in the end, it was just disposable fluff. It was a popcorn movie, and that could have been enough for it to get a B-, but I could never quite get away from noticing the special effects, stagecraft, and sheer logistics of filming each big action set-piece, and that lack of immersiveness knocked it down a grade point. (Caveat: I have not seen the first two films, and although I picked up what was going on just fine, thanks, it might have engaged me a bit more if I'd had two more movies to get to care about these people.) Oh, and it was hard to get away from the notion that apparently this was set in the Past, when everyone was still an ethnic stereotype.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: A. OK, an A with the caveat that it's impossible for me to tell how much of this grade came from the actual movie I watched, and how much of it came from the film-makers simply having the good taste to make another Fantastic Four movie. I'm of the belief that the FF are virtually writer-proof; the characters are so vivid, the stories so iconic, and the villains so great, that you actually have to work to screw it up. At least for me.

Transformers: B+. With a different director, this could have been an A+, but Michael Bay really drops it a full letter grade with his insistence on using extreme close-ups, shaky-cam, and all sorts of tricks that really obscure the action and make it difficult to tell what's going on in any given scene. I understand the need to build slowly to the big set-piece action sequences, but once you get to them, you should be showing the audience everything in loving detail. Still, good acting, funny scenes, and Frenzy was awesome. (Mind you, the killer Nokia cell phone beat everything.)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: I. Sorry, but I just had to give this an incomplete because, is. They're trying to condense an 870-page book which is mostly about character development and backstory into a pacy two-hour movie; at that point, you might as well stop calling it an adaptation and start calling it "Selected highlights of the book." Major plot points get left out, important characters wind up being reduced to extras...really, it's not a complete movie. (Which is why I don't normally go to the Harry Potter films.)

Stardust: A. I did vacillate a bit on whether to add a "-" to that, because I was a little disappointed on what they did with Victoria (even eight years after reading the book, I remember thinking that she Learned Her Lesson about toying with people's hearts, and it was sad to see a version of her that didn't.) But still, the changes from the book were all in the service of making it more memorable, exciting, dramatic, and fun, and I'm all for all of that. And they did it all while keeping the tone and basic shape of Gaiman's excellent novel, which is nothing short of amazing.

And that, I think, ends the "Summer Blockbuster Season"; it's September now, and while I do want to see 'Balls of Fury' (yes, I do, and I'm not ashamed of that), I don't feel that it really qualifies as a "blockbuster". This means that the GPA of the movies above is about a B (since I really doubt that the Harry Potter people are going to turn the rest of their movie in any time soon, their "I" gets changed to an "F" for the purposes of figuring out GPAs.) Not bad, although it should be noted that I managed to miss quite a few summer movies--I did not, for example, see 'Live Free or Die Hard' or 'The Bourne Ultimatum' (which probably cancel each other out).

In short, while popcorn cinema could still stand to study a bit harder and maybe consider doing some DVD extra-credit work, it certainly isn't flunking.

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