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Summer Movie Season Doldrums. "Where's The Beef?" Or Maybe "More Cowbell?" And Other Catchphrases...

Photo of Tambay A. Obenson By Tambay A. Obenson | Shadow and Act September 1, 2014 at 12:36PM

To be sure, there were a few standard issue studio-backed summer movies that I saw and wasn't entirely insulted by. "X-Men: Days of Future Past" was good enough, but not great. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" was ok. And there were 2 or 3 others. It's just that none of them really hooked me.
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Amazing Spidey

Thinking about Sergio's box office post yesterday, on the lackluster critical and commercial successes of this summer's movie season - one that's on its tail-end - a few things came to me, as we enter what is typically a period when the studios showcase their best work.

It's maybe not much of a surprise that the summer movie release I enjoyed and appreciated the most wasn't exactly your typical summer movie: not the expected loud, action-adventure, weighed down by oodles of computer generated effects that overshadow any real character development and even a coherent, engaging story. Like the sugary, fatty snacks we love to eat, that aren't necessarily good for us, but quench some immediate thirst, and are quickly forgotten. 

Somewhat buried under the onerous heft of entirely unsatisfactory sequels like "Amazing Spider-Man 2," a 4th "Transformers" movie, a second "Captain America," and others, was "A Most Wanted Man," one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's final films before his death. A superbly-acted, technically sound, engaging character-driven political thriller. Sadly it's not the kind of film that will open on 4000 screens nationwide, meaning most of us won't see it, and many likely will never even hear about it - unless of course it enters the many awards season conversations that will soon start to happen. 

The other film I saw this summer that also stood head and shoulders above the rest was "Snowpiercer" - the wholly original, apocalyptic, relatively low-budget (by Hollywood standards) thrill ride (both literally and figuratively) that tackles class warfare in a refreshing, if chilling way. It too likely isn't playing at a theater near every single one of you, and won't make enough of a splash at the box office. But it's a film that I feel deserves even more attention than it's received thus far. It's available on VOD if you're interested.

To be sure, there were a few standard issue studio-backed summer movies that I saw and wasn't entirely insulted by. "X-Men: Days of Future Past" was good enough, but not great. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" was ok. And there were 2 or 3 others. It's just that none of them really hooked me. Maybe it's just me. I'm too hard to please.

There's nothing wrong with what I call intelligent entertainment. Sure, bring on the guns, the violence, the sex, the explosions, the special effects, etc. But just don't forget a smart script, with well-defined and interesting characters, and of course, an engaging story. Or, at the very least, know exactly what kind of movie you've got, and don't pretend (or try) to make it anything else but what it is. "Amazing Spider-Man 2," for example, tried too hard to be many things, and it failed miserably. And I believe that a key part of the problem for the incoherence and flimsiness of a movie like that is the studio's choice in director.   

Movies, in general, are getting more and more expensive to make, it appears; Ridiculously expensive in some cases. It wasn't so long ago when the average Hollywood studio movie budget was in the $50 - $60 million range. Now I suspect it's much higher, especially with what feels like an onslaught of mega-budgeted summer tent-pole movies that cost upwards of $150 million. The obvious problem is that those movies have to make 2 to 3 times their budgets to be considered hits. And when a movie cost $200 million, for it to make $500 to $600 million (whether domestic, international or combined) can be a challenge - especially when the movies themselves just don't deliver what audiences want, which seems to be the case this summer, if reports of a weakening attendance, and thus ticket sales, are an indication! 

I may be in the minority, but I thought the recent Captain America movie ("Winter Soldier") was actually quite weak. The first one was just OK, in my opinion, but the second, released earlier this year, wasn't as decent as the first.

Marvel's director choices on some of its adaptations has been puzzling to me. The Captain America franchise currently belongs to the Russo brothers, whose previous work includes films like "You, Me and Dupree," and "Welcome to Collinwood," and TV series like “Community.” As far as I'm concerned, a resume that includes those 2 films and that TV series wouldn't lead me to believe that the filmmaker(s) could efficiently make the transition to shepherding a mega-budgeted, special effects-heavy comic book movie adaptation.

As a disclaimer, I'm not on the *inside* so I can't claim to know exactly what Marvel's process was/is in selecting directors to helm its projects. The studio was obviously convinced that the filmmakers were well-equipped to handle a film adaptation that was unlike anything they'd tackled before, and on a much grander scale. So I have to acquiesce - as in accept the studio's decision, but with doubt and protest. Not that my opinion carries any weight here at all.

I do applaud what may have been seen as a risk in taking a chance on the Russos for example. The studio could've certainly selected a veteran filmmaker whose past work demonstrated that he/she would be better-suited for an expensive thrill ride based on a fictional superhero in peak human physiological condition, who carries a nearly-indestructible shield. Although, in my not-so humble opinion, this kind of "risk-taking," we can call it, by studios, in selecting directors for these career-making projects, rarely ever happens to directors of color (black directors in this case, given this blog's focus) and women. And, as far as I'm concerned, the directors Marvel did select have produced 2, at best, average Captain America movies - again, in my opinion - and they've been handed the keys for an upcoming 3rd film in the ongoing franchise. 

I'm not a superhero comic book geek by any stretch, but I'm familiar enough to be able to say that these characters and the movies they're in, deserve better. I thought Bryan Singer did a decent job on "X-Men: Days of Future Past." But I wasn't blown away by the movie, like I really wanted to be. These are movies about incredibly exciting, otherworldly characters, with abilities beyond anything any human being is capable of, but yet, some (not all) the movies based on these characters are kind of, well, dull, and they really shouldn't be. 

We're being sold mediocrity here, as far as I'm concerned, and I think the fact that box office numbers are apparently in decline, based on summer box office reports, maybe speaks to the fact that fewer audiences are buying what the studios are selling. I'd like to think that most of us are smarter than the studios may give us credit for. 

Let David Fincher direct the next Captain America movie. I'd really love to see what the veteran artist behind well-made, smart and mostly successful dark thrillers like "Seven," "The Game," and "Fight Club" could come up with, to be frank. He's certainly no stranger to large production budgets. I'd even take a Darren Aronofsky for the upcoming "Batman vs Superman" project in place of Zack Snyder, who made the first Superman movie, which I thought was insipid. Superman deserves much more than what Snyder delivered - a filmmaker whose strongest work to date (again, in my opinion) is "Dawn of the Dead," which I liked; Just not almost everything else he's done since then. Certainly nothing that would inspire me (were it my decision) to give him the director's chair for a globally-loved character like Superman. 

The last "Amazing Spider-Man" movie (released this year, with Jamie Foxx as Electro) was terrible, I felt! The first one under director Marc Webb's watch wasn't that great to begin with, but the second was just awful, to be frank. Prior to being *gifted* the Spider-Man franchise reboot, post the Sam Raimi/Tobey MaGuire trilogy, Webb had directed just one feature film: "(500) Days of Summer." Quite the progression - from an offbeat, indie romantic comedy, which cost around $7 million to make, to directing what is effectively a $230 million action-adventure/sci-fi/fantasy movie about a young man bitten by a radioactive spider, who fends off villains with equally super powers. How exactly does that happen? Again, I'm not an *insider* so I'm not fully equipped to detail how Sony's director selection process is handled, and I have to believe that the studio chiefs saw enough in Webb and his work to feel good and safe in handing him the keys to their prized superhero franchise. Maybe he shot a Spider-Man short film to show them what he was capable of doing with the material, and, based on all the directors on the studio's short list of candidates, he proved himself ready and capable. And once again, I'll say that these kinds of "risks" are rarely taken with directors of color and women. 

A filmmaker by the name of Barry Jenkins also made a beloved (and we could even say a cult favorite) offbeat indie romcom called "Medicine for Melancholy" (although his cost about 1% of what Webb's "(500) Days of Summer" did; nor did it have recognizable actors starring in it, and a major studio behind it). But I think the work showed enough promise, so much that, 6 years since that film's release, I'd like to think that he would've have had the opportunity to direct at least one other feature film by now - specifically, a studio-backed project. At the time of "Medicine for Melancholy's" release, his name was on the lips of many. He was on the cover on film-related magazines, like Filmmaker magazine, and the film itself won awards and critical acclaim, with many in the industry branding Jenkins a filmmaker to watch. Since then, he's added just 3 commissioned short films to his resume, which, while certainly a good thing that his talent is being appreciated by those who commissioned him to make those shorts, and he is continuing to work as a filmmaker, if you told me 6 years ago that Barry wouldn't get the opportunity to make another feature for at least the following 6 years, that's a bet that I would've put up good money against.

But, as far as I'm concerned, just like the Russo brothers, there was nothing about what Marc Webb, and now Peyton Reed (who's directing the Ant-Man movie, despite the fact that his most notable films include "The Break-Up," and "Bring It On") have done previously (before they were handed mega-budgeted superhero franchises), that proves they were/are suited for the positions they were hired by the studios to fill.

Feel free to humble and educate me on the studio director selection process for each of these projects, if you're privy to the methodology. 

Again, I applaud that these studios are taking chances with fresh and unlikely faces behind the camera to helm their comic book movie adaptations, but I think they'll need to consider hiring directors who, on paper and based on past work, are better-suited talents to helm these films, especially with the 23 or so comic book movie adaptations expected to be released over the next 5 years. That's right: 23. Many of those may not be the critical and commercial hits the studios will likely expect, if they don't rethink their creative hiring strategies for each.

Finally, back to box office results for this past weekend...

Who would've thought that there would still be a strong appetite for a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie? Certainly not me. So the fact that it's doing so well, is something of a mystery to me. But I guess it's considered a family film, which tend to do well at the box office - especially those based on familiar characters and that are heavily marketed.

I'm surprised at the weakness in ticket sales for "Expendables 3." The fact that the film was leaked online ahead of its official release aside, I also can't help but feel that Lionsgate's decision to release a PG13 movie may have also had something to do with its slim sales. The first 2 films in the franchise were both rated R. They weren't masterpieces of cinema certainly, but they also didn't pretend to be. Fans knew exactly what they were getting in each, and liked what they were given in return. I know, for me, once I learned that the 3rd movie would be rated PG13, my enthusiasm for it waned immediately. I still haven't seen it, so I can't speak to its merits. But what is supposed to be an old-school, men-on-a-mission movie, that prides itself on its uber masculine bent (with a cast comprised of mostly action heroes from a period when those movies were mostly appreciated for their undiluted, un-PC grit, grime, blood and guts), should be fully aware of what exactly it is, knowing what its core audience wants, and delivering on that promise. Lionsgate's decision to make a film that 13 year old boys would be allowed to see, may have also been to the film's detriment. Of course, again, the pre-release leak was likely the major culprit, although we may never know with certainty. I actually thought that, with the movie marking Wesley Snipes' big screen return, this 3rd film would be the highest grossing movie in the franchise. Clearly I'm going to very wrong. 

And then there's "Let's Be Cops"... A hit? Who expected that? Did you? I didn't.

And I think it's time to put the "found footage" movie to bed. Enough already! Unless the filmmakers behind each project do something with the idea that pushes it beyond what we've already seen ad naseam. 

I'm actually surprised at how poorly the second "Sin City" movie is doing. Not that I'm a huge fan, but I just thought it would do better, since the first film was a hit.

With the awards movie season kicking off shortly, I just don't see many that will be sure-fire box office hits - except for a movie like Christopher Nolan's latest sci-fi epic, "Interstellar." Although given some of this year's surprises to the up and down side, maybe I shouldn't be so quick to crown "Interstellar" a smash just yet. Who really knows at this point? 

Hopefully good-old genre thrillers like "A Walk Among the Tombstones" and "The Equalizer" won't try to surprise us, and will instead stick to the script, and deliver what I think most of us expect of them.

But what were YOUR summer movie season highlights and let-downs? Or did you stay home more often (as I've actually been doing), and instead, watched some of this summer's TV offerings, where you would've found some good, and maybe even great material - better than much of what's screening at the theaters? For example, I just discovered the British spy thriller miniseries "The Honourable Woman," written and directed by Hugo Blick, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, which premiered on the Sundance Channel in July. 3 episodes in, I'm hooked enough to have purchased the entire 8-episode season via iTunes.

Your turn... Dig in...

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