[29 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Without truly looking back at the entirety of the 2011 Summer Movie Season, it’s easy to dismiss this quarter-year as a basic bust. Just look at all the junk that’s out there - Friends with Benefits, Cowboys and Aliens, The Green Lantern, The Change-Up - and tell us if the last four months were worth it. However, such a conclusion comes from a real lack of perspective. Sure, you’d have to sit through dozens of movies to get to the good stuff, but May through August also gave us Thor, Captain America, Winnie the Pooh, The Help, and the last Harry Potter movie ever…or until they find a way to rebook/reimagine the franchise. While such a compare and contrast leads to a margin of mediocrity, this Summer was actually significantly better than it seems. There’s just some weird movie mojo suggesting otherwise.
Granted, Horrible Bosses was just that, and Cars 2 was all merchandising and no magic, but there was also the indie intrigue of Another Earth, and the big bang boom spectacle of Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Priest may have wasted its vampire apocalypse premise, but the Fright Night remake found a way to make the neckbiter scary again. Once again, the family film failed to be anything other than atrocious - with a couple of very rare exceptions - while horror hovered around the barely above average mark. As a result, picking five good and five bad examples of the annual box office money grab was harder than one imagines. It’s all personal opinion and quantitative determination, but the final figuring is still a crap shoot. Even with the lists right in front of us, 2011 still seemed like a disappointment…and maybe it was…maybe?
Apparently, the public’s fascination with Kevin James ends at the Mall food court. After the massive success of his rent-a-cop comedy, Hollywood just figured they could throw him into anything and audiences would arrive in droves. Unfortunately, they didn’t. As a matter of fact, aside from the wee ones, who just can’t get enough of those sass-mouthed, celebrity voiced animals, this travesty tanked, and tanked badly. Of course, it won’t stop Tinseltown from trying to wedge the plus-sized comedian into other ridiculous high concept situations. Just don’t be surprised when the next announced vehicle revolves around a bumbling security guard and a suburban shopping center… again.
4. The SmurfsDirector: Raja Gosnell
While it would be easier to simply insert the word “smurf” for every curse word and criticism this movie demands, it’s better to build one’s actual hate on what’s up on the screen. If you are a fan of the little blue pixie trolls, their collectible personalities parsed out among recognizable and nameable traits, then you’ll probably tolerate this subpar swill. On the other hand, a movie which manages to dump all over everything the global phenomenon stands for could only come from the sour studio system circa 2011. Naturally, there will be sequels and tie-ins and all manner of merchandising malfeasance. It’s enough to make you smurf yourself.
3. Mr. Popper’s PenguinsDirector: Mark Waters
Bird poop. This movie is obsessed with it. There is an actual sequence, somewhere towards the middle, when our former funnyman—one James Carrey—actually holds these title characters over the toilet and systematically squeezes the avian diarrhea out of them. Not once. Not twice, but several times—and here’s the sad part. Said scatology is the only bit of excitement in an otherwise dull and dopey desecration of a beloved children’s book. While the original tale, set during the Great Depression and centering on a poor house painter who longs to travel, is considered a classic, this update is just crap. Bird crap.
2. Spy Kids: All the Time in the WorldDirector: Robert Rodriguez
Robert Rodriguez can apparently get away with anything. If you’ve seen the ultra lame, kiddie scripted excuse for entertainment known as The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, you’ll understand the sentiment. Every few years, he delivers a geek’s genre dream—Sin City, Planet Terror—and then retreats to his Texas studios to spew forth dung like this. It’s bad enough that the original Spy Kids are now so old that they have been replaced by nameless novices, but Rodriguez manages one of the greatest affronts of all time—he finds a way to make the otherwise hilarious Rickey Gervais intolerable.
1. One DayDirector: Lone Scherfig
The best way to describe this 100 minutes of misery is as follows—two dreary decades in the lives of a couple of uninterested people as they wander around doing things no one cares about in ways that are boring and aggravating. And then Anne Hathaway tries an English accent—and fails. Beyond the crude collection of cliches and tell-tale tragic foreboding is a romance that makes no sense, a case of destiny where we can’t quite figure out what Fate sees in these idiots. Instead of real and dreamy, the results are repugnant and rotten. Not only a Summer bummer in the most miserable sense, but perhaps one of 2011’s worst as well.
5. BridesmaidsDirector: Paul Feig
First off, let’s stop calling it the female Hangover. There’s an actual story here—unlike the free for all male take on similar material—and there’s a great deal of well earned heart as well. Though she had the guidance of fading superstar producer Judd Apatow, this is comedienne Kristin Wiig’s movie all the way. Her performance sets the tone and her character—a bitter 30-something single gal with definite guy issues—is wholly authentic and completely contemporary. Add in the brilliant support of her ensemble and the assured direction of Paul Feig and you’ve got one of the season’s few funny business bright spots.
That groan you heard a few years back was Nerd Nation kvetching over the concept of another Apes movie. After all, Tim Burton’s bungling of the franchise nearly killed off the cinematic simian saga forever. Now, that cheer you hear is a studio (and sci-fi fanbase) reeling from an amazing, almost miraculous motion picture comeback. All kudos to director Rupert Wyatt for finding the humanity and horror in the standard story of Science playing God. Equally respect to actor Andy Serkis, who once again proved that motion capture technology can turn out an Oscar worthy performance. The best thing this update does? It actually makes us eager for a sequel.
It’s perhaps unfair to include this film as part of a ‘Summer’ overview. After all, it’s been playing around the world for months and premiered long before anyone was thinking about suntan lotion and sparklers. Then there will be those who quarrel over its placement on this list (too low… TOO high!). Arguing the pragmatic aspects of the timing and distribution however doesn’t dissuade from the artistic achievement on display. Does the Creation material make a lot of sense? No. Does the inclusion of dinosaurs add to the innate drama of the ‘50s era family conflict. Ummm… In either case, this will remains one of 2011’s most talked about films, thus mandating a mention here.
It’s one of the most poignant moments of this movie year—their friendship tested, their powers bested—almost—Dr. Charles Xavier and his brother in arms, Holocaust survivor Erik Lensherr must decide where their loyalties actually lie. After years of taking on every challenge together, this is the moment where their bond either breaks or strengthens. As they argue emotion and purpose, the conclusion becomes clear. These one time allies are about to become enemies—perhaps the greatest enemies in all of superhero-dom. In Matthew Vaughn’s near masterpiece of comic book classicism, we are introduced to two incredibly characters played by actors more than up to the challenge. The results are epic.
Yes, it’s a love letter to Steven Spielberg. The riffs and references are so obvious in fact that you half expect a cameo from the superstar filmmaker himself. But J. J. Abrams’ affectionate look back at childhood and the happiness/horrors that can be found there is more than just a nod to his popcorn master/mentor. It’s a reminder of a time (personal, professional) when anything was possible, when the entirety of one’s existence could be caught up in a local catastrophe, the glance of a cute girl, or a homemade zombie movie. As it builds towards its set-piece climax, we come to see our own youth in these complex kid characters. More importantly, we are once again filled with cinematic wonder, something that’s been sadly missing from movies in the last few years.