Did I ever say anything in a previous column about how good the 2014 summer movie season was going to be? I’m not going back to check. You can look for me. If I did, then you’re more than welcome to ask me if I was momentarily poisoned by Aristocrat and allergy medication that day.
It’s true that we’re just getting into August. It’s true as well that there are still a few movies coming out over the next couple of months. Many of them have a shot at being pretty good, to pretty great, to something that qualifies as a new classic (and hang the silly sons of bitches who dare to disagree). I’m not giving up on the summer just yet. I’m just not very enthusiastic.
No, I haven’t seen everything (Guardians of the Galaxy or Boyhood), but I’ve seen a lot. And out of everything I’ve seen this summer, it’s becoming increasingly possible that when it’s all over, the most exciting experience I’m going to say I had in a movie theater was when I saw the final live Monty Python show. That’s great within the context of how much I love Monty Python. It’s not so great within the context of how much I love movies.
Great summer films (Captain America: The Winter Solider or Godzilla) have been few and far between for me. Absolutely awful summer films (Transformers: Age of Extinction) have been pretty rare, too. What I’m talking about are the movies that were fine, but are not particularly worth remembering. I’m thinking of Lucy, and how its problematic elements (the most perfect human being in history is blond and white, the science is wrong that even idiots like me know that, all the bad guys are Asians) should also take into the fact that it wasn’t a very good action movie. Scarlett Johansson can definitely headline a summer action blockbuster. It’s just that she should have gotten a better one.22 Jump Street was fun, but it wasn’t worth 12 dollars. The Amazing Spiderman 2 (which we’re gonna get into later) was kind of a huge mess, punctuated by moments that frustratingly hinted at something better. The Expendables 3 felt tired. The list goes on. The slap-Jesus-in-the-mouth-awful movies and highlight-reel-for-the-season movies can be combined to make up a very small list. The movies that couldn’t seem to commit to either of those camps makes up a much larger list. I’m not optimistic that all of this can somehow change, before the mediocre elephant burial ground that makes up the fall movie season starts up.
In fact, my review of The Expendables 3 is looking more and more like it’s going to be my review of the whole summer movie season. Everything feels very tired. I’m not sorry I spent the afternoon at such-and-such movie, but I’m also pretty sure I could have just stayed home. Even most of the really enjoyable movies have an element of predictability that I can’t quite shake off or forgive.
Either that’s true, or I’m just too difficult to please. Let’s play it safe. Let’s assume that both of those thoughts are in play right now. And if you feel like this is a conversation I’ve had with you in a previous column, again, there’s a good chance that I have. I’m still not going to go back and check, but that déjà vu feeling is nagging at me, too.
The Expendables 3 (2014): C-
The first Expendables was a lot of fun. The second Expendables was more fun than I would have guessed it could be. And the third? Well, it definitely wants to follow in those footsteps.
However crass the amount of cynicism was that went into believing how far nostalgia for 80’s/90’s action movies could go, it worked for the first two films. Stallone came up with the story and shares screenplay credits with two other writers. With that thought in mind, The Expendables 3 does feel like it’s trying to tell two or three stories at once. And while it’s easy to dismiss the need for a good story in a movie like this, the fact that The Expendables 3 implodes in its desperation to embrace clichés and original ideas is a clear reminder that it really does matter.
When the movie introduces fresh (younger people) faces that none of us really want to see (although I liked Ronda Rousey), it matters. When favorites from the past two films flash so quickly across the screen that they just barely rise above cameo status, it matters. When the movie throws an assortment of fresh (older people) faces at us, and then cuts their screen time down to a fraction of what we want it to be, it definitely matters.
Mel Gibson works as a crazy fuck (well…yeah…), Kelsey Grammer is a fun addition, Harrison Ford is still an intense guy, and Antonio Banderas deserves a big comeback far more than most of his co-stars. All of those actors remind us of why we’re watching a movie like this in the first place. Some of these guys can definitely remind us of their “glory days” in impressive fashion, but those entertaining portions of The Expendables 3 never stick around for very long. The film tries so hard to pack so much into its 2 hours and change running time, we’re left with a mess of groan-worthy clichés, guilty pleasure clichés, people we want to see, and people who don’t have much to offer (Wesley Snipes should have been a welcomed addition, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case).
Everything in The Expendables 3 reeks of exhausted desperation. The franchise has moved from a winning desire to prove that the old timers can still go, to a weird need to justify an ongoing series. There is just enough here to make it worth the time of an established fan, but even the faithful aren’t going to have a lot of enthusiasm for a probable fourth entry. Some of these veterans are still in great shape, but it might be time to retire the team as a whole.
Hobson’s Choice (1954 ): A+
David Lean went from smaller films like Hobson’s Choice to sprawling epics like Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and Ryan’s Daughter. Those other films can be engaging in their own ways, while showcasing the ongoing history of the big cinematic story that stretches across a wide portion of space and time.
Hobson’s Choice is based on a play, and the cast and crew very keenly stick to that source material throughout. The end result is something that is still genuinely funny, and still has a steady array of one-liners and acrimonious conversations between the characters. I can’t recommend this movie to everybody, but I can say that Charles Laughton is an actor who is worth celebrating and appreciating in the present (he also directed Night of the Hunter). I can also you that people like John Mills and Prunella Scales (if you’re a really big Fawltey Towers fan, you know who that is) are in brilliant form here. It’s also a good story, with an alcoholic storeowner (Laughton) going to war with his daughters and solitary employee over marriage, the business, and anything else that happens to come up in conversation that day. And there are at least two or three visual touches in this movie, which never loses sight of its stage play structure, that are so inventive in their design, you can’t believe they came from a 1950s film.
All of those things make up Hobson’s Choice, but I still can’t recommend it to everyone. If very, very, dry British farce doesn’t sound like your thing, stay away. If black and white movies are just not your bag, you’ll want to stay away. I want to be just obnoxious enough to tell you that you’re missing out if you do, but if those two things are deal-breakers, then you shouldn’t waste your time.
The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014): D+
It’s hard for me to imagine this movie appealing to anyone over the age of thirteen. And while that crowd is of course vital to the box office success of these superhero films, we are at a point in time now when there’s no excuse for leaving everyone else out in the cold.
The people who make the decisions regarding the direction of the Spiderman cinematic universe are clearly looking to replicate the success of The Avengers and all connected films. That’s fine. Even if you don’t think that’s fine, that’s the way it’s going to be. Several films have been announced in connection with the two Amazing Spiderman films. One is slated for Venom, another for The Sinister Six, and then there are rumors circulating that a female protagonist from Spidey’s world is going to get her own movie, too.
All of that is fine and dandy, if not inevitable. However, after watching The Amazing Spiderman 2 descend into a blaze of empty special effects, a convoluted storyline, and more characters than we really needed, I can’t say I’m excited about what’s coming up over the next few years.
To date, one of the primary elements of success for The Avengers has been the fact that every film has been taken seriously. Every movie at least conveys the illusion that the only thing that matters is that we pay attention to that movie at that exact moment. Each film being released is given the attention and talent necessary to make it the best movie possible. We know there other movies coming up, but the one we’re watching doesn’t seem like it’s in a rush to hurry us along.
The Amazing Spiderman 2 throws a lot of things at us. As we watch Spiderman (Andrew Garfield, who is once again excellent as both Peter Parker and the web slinger) battle Electro (Jamie Foxx is wasted), Russian mobsters who are destined to become super-villains (Paul Giamatti), and the Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), we feel a kind of desperation that’s similar but still different to The Expendables 3. The desperation comes through in watching Peter Parker try to have a relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone is also wasted), support his Aunt May (Sally Field), come to terms with the death of his parents (the always excellent Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), and re-establish his friendship with Harry Osborne (who has his own sub-plots going on).
Are you starting to feel like Marc Webb and the rest of the team behind The Amazing Spiderman tried to cram two or three movies into a 2-1/2 hour summer spectacular? You’re not the only one. And all of it feels like a level of desperation that’s designed to make us forget that the people involved in making this movie are already looking ahead. They’re making this movie only because they have to, in order to get to those other movies, in what Sony is hoping will be a very exciting, very profitable Spiderman universe. Sequels naturally lend themselves to a sense of obligation. Now, with franchises being planned out four, five movies ahead of time, it’s harder than ever for a sequel to hide that sense of obligation. But it can be done. The fact that we know it can be done makes The Amazing Spiderman 2 even more reprehensible. It takes the solid foundation established by the first movie, opts for sensory overload, and fails as a result to be entertaining in almost every possible way. For a movie with so much plot, it’s a bit alarming that so little actually happens. Movies featuring Venom and other characters might be fun, but it would have been nice if just a little more care had gone into making a decent Spiderman movie.
The next one is slated for 2018 (?!). That’s enough time for us to imagine that maybe they’ll get it right for number three.
Super (2010): B+
It’s definitely not the most popular opinion on the block, but for my money, James Gunn’s Super does the superhero-with-out-super-powers-dark-comedy thing far better than either of the Kick Ass films (which I still like a great deal).
Although Gunn now has the distinction of being the director of the current Marvel movie darling Guardians of the Galaxy, that isn’t his first time dealing with superheroes. He wrote the screenplay for the 2000 film The Specials, and then he went on to write and direct this strange, unnerving story of a short order cook (the vastly underappreciated Rainn Wilson), who responds to his wife (Liv Tyler) leaving him for a drug dealer (Kevin Bacon is a fantastic scumbag) by becoming a superhero.
Super is far more interested in telling the story it wants to tell, than the story people perhaps want to hear. That can certainly rub people the wrong way. Super doesn’t seem to build a lot of momentum, and the story takes some frustrating liberties with its desire to make a clear statement on what happens when the emotionally unhinged take a definitive, permanent step away from reality. It’s still so damn compelling, thanks largely to Wilson, and Ellen page as Wilson’s (far crazier) teenage sidekick and the movie’s scene-stealer.
Performances help the movie achieve its desire to be an eccentric character study in clear-cut outcast country. Gunn has a unique perspective that has served to enhance well-known plots (the alien invasion trope in Slither, for example). His career trajectory as a writer and director has been absolutely bizarre. To see him working with Guardians of the Galaxy is interesting, to say the least. I’m a little surprised, but the singularity of Super makes me glad he got the gig. Only a true fan of the superhero concept would fuck with that concept in the ways that Gunn does with Super.
Dracula 3D (2012): F-
The intensity and surrealist fairy tale imagery of Dario Argento’s earlier work is such that his legacy as a horror movie legend will always be secure. It’s just a shame that with the exception of his first Masters of Horror episode some years back, it seems like there hasn’t been a good Dario Argento film in well over twenty years.
Even the most amazing contemporary cinematic Dracula story of all time isn’t really going to change the fact that Argento’s best days are clearly behind him. Fair enough, when you’ve amassed the body of work that he has. Even so, if he’s going to continue to make films, it would be great to see at least one more of them harken back to his more creative days.
Again, Dracula wasn’t going to change that, but I wanted it to at least be entertaining. What I got was something so fantastically inept, that I just couldn’t find it funny. There’s something about the incredible shittiness of Dracula 3D that just sucks the joy out of mocking it.
And believe me, there’s plenty of potential fodder for someone who wants to succeed where I failed. You can laugh at one of the worst Dracula portrayals of all time (poor Thomas Kretschmann tries though), the fact that Asia Argento has done nude scenes in her father’s films more than once, Dracula’s bizarre creature transformations, the 4th grade science fair effects, or Rutger Hauer visibly wondering if he could possibly get any drunker than he clearly is in every single scene. That’s not even half of the things you can find in Dracula 3D that take the concept of “cringe-worthy” to heights you were better off not reaching.
After what is in fact a hilariously stupid opening sequence, I just started to feel bad for everyone. These people got to make a silly movie in Europe with a legend, while I watched that same movie in my room, eating dry ramen out of the bag, and I’m the one who feels sorry for them? That’s how bad Dracula 3D is.
After a certain point, you stop laughing, and you start wondering if you will ever know of beautiful things in the world ever again.