Tuesday, May 20, 2014

On the underwhelming nature of summer blockbusters

You know, I like a good summer blockbuster as much as anyone. I like the idea of big, entertaining spectacles that make you ooh and ahh and feel things communally, that make you spill your popcorn, make your eyes wet up, make you laugh aloud and gasp and react audibly, so that you briefly feel the bonds of kinship with the other hopefuls in the megaplex, gasping and laughing and so forth along with you. Elitist or not, film snob or not, I am not immune to these pleasures, think they're an important part of the experience of cinema, of why we go to the movies in the first place. It's just that no one seems to know how to make good summer blockbusters these days! (Maybe the conditions of film production in North America no longer make them possible?).

I loved Peter Jackson's 2005 remake of King Kong. (My original reactions to that here). I realize that that's a controversial position and admit that you have to work with him a little, and that the film is not without its issues (particularly the bizarre, apparently deliberate, but still seemingly purposeless foregrounding of the racist subtext of the original story; that bothered me far more than, say, Jack Black's hamminess, or the excessive CGI, or the lack of subtlety, or excessive sentimentality, or...). But Jackson's love for the original pours through at every turn, the sincerity of his joy in movie-making and his desire to have fun and offer fun to his viewers that I loved it wholeheartedly, or near enough wholeheartedly that the parts of my heart that loved it beat the parts of my heart that didn't into submission and silence. I went to see it at least five times during its first theatrical run, and have seen it a few times since on home video, including the extended cut. I will probably see it again someday. I remember being grateful at the time - "at last, a big summer spectacle that I can enjoy!" I would have gone to see other movies during its theatrical run but each time I went to the theatre there was nothing playing that I thought I would like even half as much as I liked King Kong.

I think that's the last blockbuster I really loved. (I mean, I went to see Constantine a bunch of times too, that year, and retain fondness for it... but it hardly counts as a blockbuster). I've been disappointed enough for long enough now by my other attempts to satiate myself on big Hollywood movies that I'm actually getting a bit bored with the feeling.

As a Peter Jackson fan, I've dutifully sat through the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, and enjoyed bits of them here and there, but the source material has no particular appeal for me; I'm more of a horror/ SF guy than a fantasy one, don't care about Tolkien at all, and basically spend the whole of each movie waiting for Gollum to appear. In no way did I feel cheated or disappointed by these films - and I thought the most recent Hobbit film was probably the best of the lot, in fact - but I cannot say they are movies I loved. They were... okay.

The Batman movies - the Christopher Nolan ones, I mean - are all such reactionary right-wing propaganda that they actually have come to fascinate me, particularly given how completely unwilling their fanbase is to see them in that (glaring, unavoidable) light. I even own the first two on DVD, and have seen the third. Still, I cannot say I like them much - see here for more. And speaking of Christopher Nolan, Inception was without value or charm for me. The parts that weren't plagiarised from Neuromancer mostly involved brainless shoot-em-ups in dreams - a realm where I have no recollection of ever having encountered a gun, let alone a shoot-out - which were made vastly over-complicated (but not more intelligent) by specious "levels of reality" meanderings. See here for more of my reactions to that film; I saw it once, and have not considered watching it again since, nor would I.

Prometheus insulted my intelligence more than any other film I've seen in ages. (More here). Oblivion was almost as bad, but in less remarkable ways. Given a choice between revisiting either of those films and M. Night Shyamalan's poorly received After Earth, I would probably pick After Earth (but I would probably opt to stay home and clean my kitchen instead, if that were an option; even that film managed to be somewhat disappointing).

I obligingly sat through the Star Trek and Spider Man reboots. Neither were, uh, that bad, nor were either that great. They made pretty much no impression on me at all, in fact. The Total Recall film at least made me mad that they fucked things up so badly, made a film so totally unnecessary, wasted so much talent and opportunity. I was kind of grateful to at least feel annoyed by it; most times with these films, you've forgotten you saw them at all five minutes after the movie is over.

Case in point: Pacific Rim. I sat through it, was engaged enough at the time - much of which still hopeful expectation that it was suddenly going to become good - and then forgot it, without having ever been stirred to care. I have no idea why the film has fans; I mean, I consider myself borderline desperate for entertainment, so many of these crap films have I spent money to see, but Christ, I'm not so desperate that I mistook Pacific Rim for a good movie...

World War Z was equally nothing special. A few nice ideas survived from the Max Brooks' book, and translated into a few memorable images. Mostly it felt like a waste of money.

Gravity was visually compelling, was a gripping piece of spectacle. And that's it.

I have no fondness for Baz Luhrmann - none - but to please my lady I did take in The Great Gatsby; and even that managed to disappoint me. (I did enjoy The Wolf of Wall Street, mind you - speaking of DiCaprio - but hell, it's a Scorsese film, he doesn't deserve to be mentioned in this company, even when indulging in populist slumming, which The Wolf of Wall Street kind of was).

I have not cared at all about a single film with the name "Bourne" in the title. I watched a bit of the first one and gave up. I have no curiosity whatsoever about any projects undertaken by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, or Bruce Willis (though I did watch The Expendables, believe it or not, and maybe even The Expendables 2. The Expendables 3, upcoming, is one disposable action movie too many in this franchise, however).

After being delighted by Crank, I attempted a few other Jason Statham films and have learned my lesson.

 I can no longer be moved to follow X-Men movies, though I tried to like the first couple. I have had mixed feelings about all these Marvel Avengers-related projects - I was kind of amused by Iron Man 2 and Thor - but realized at some point that I just did not care. I still have not seen The Avengers film, which everyone apparently loved, because I think at this point I have a pretty good idea that these films are simply not made for me; I know now what pleasures they offer, and prefer to live without them. Captain America, Superman - whatever. Guardians of the Galaxy at least looks like it's vaguely original (and it has Michael Rooker in it!) but I cannot say that I'm excited about it; why would I be?

After The Island, I will never again watch a Michael Bay film; after Django Unchained, I'm even considering giving up on Tarantino.

There are a handful of "big" films I did like. The first Planet of the Apes reboot - that is, Rise of, not the Tim Burton thing - was startlingly good. I was passably amused by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. And to my amazement - because I expected to find it contemptible - when I caught up with Stephen Sommers' Van Helsing on home video, I was totally, brainlessly, happily entertained. I feel quite out of step with other moviegoers (and certainly other critics) in that regard, though, since it's got 23% on RT. That's actually in keeping with my responses elsewise, since two other "big" movies I rather liked were critical and box-office flops: John Carter (51%) was kind of great, and I felt at the very least to be inclined to be charitable to 47 Ronin (13%). I certainly was more emotionally engaged by that film than I was by Godzilla.  

Mostly, though... jeez, is it hard to care about the big-budget, big-screen bullshit we're being offered nowadays. It's all sequels and comic books and reboots and "safe bets," devoid of heart, soul, or anything in the way of a fresh idea. Occasional movies flicker that make me curious, like Transcendence, but they almost always disappear from the screen before I get to them. Mostly I think I'm happy to just avoid the megaplexes for the time being. That way at least I can say I learned something from my experience of Godzilla...

Would someone please put out Kelly Reichardt's film Night Moves soon? That and Eli Roth's The Green Inferno are about the only two upcoming (more-or-less) mainstream movies that I have any hopes for.

(By the by, Roth fans and horror buffs should note that Aftershock, a film Roth acts in, recently distributed on home video, is perfectly entertaining, though not particularly groundbreaking... Presumably it was made on the quick while he had some time on the Green Inferno shoot. Was more involved in that story than I was by Godzilla, or in Pacific Rim, or...).

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