It seems like just yesterday the envelope was opened and people everywhere said "What the hell?" as The King's Speech took home Best Picture in lieu of six or seven better nominated films, but time chugs unrelentingly onwards and Oscar season will be on us again in a flash (arguably in a couple weeks, depending how high Moneyball is aiming). But before we look towards the future I'd like to glance back at the past and discuss the summer movie season that just was, spanning the April 29th release of Fast Five to, well, let's just say the last day of August.
The majority of movies I'll be discussing in this retrospective are no longer in theaters, with some already out on DVD or due out this month, but that's alright. The average American sees four movies in theaters a year, so I know most of you assholes only saw Transformers, Harry Potter and / or Pirates of the Caribbean anyway. But take my incontrovertible word for it – you missed out on a whole bunch of worthwhile flicks if that's the case! And by "a whole bunch," I mean about a dozen. But I saw way less than 120 movies this summer, so that still exceeds the "90% of everything is crap" axiom people parrot all the time.
I'll be writing this up in six separate categories (or five categories with one split into two, anyway): comic book movies, non-comic book blockbuster action part 1 and 2, mainstream comedies, indie flicks, and miscellany that doesn't go in any other category, i.e. horror and straight drama. Let's do this.
It was odd watching not only the expected geek cavalcade but a surprising number of critics go apeshit and jizz themselves over this fairly mediocre superhero flick. But the summer movie season was just getting underway at the time, so the critical support can be attributed partially to them getting swept up in a rush of flying hammers and lousy 3D that would have felt insanely generic just a few weeks later. And, well, comic nerds love seeing any of their superheroes translated to the screen with fidelity. If you want a real laugh, go to some of the negative review comment sections for Thor on Rotten Tomatoes and observe a fascinating and hilarious rage as you might an angry zoo animal.
But the film isn't all bad. For starters, Chris Hemsworth embodies the titular viking god with amusing swagger – nothing on par with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark charisma-wise, but good enough to anchor the film – and Thor's heavenly homeland of Asgard is brought to the screen with amusing fantasy verve, fully embracing its batshit nature with pomp and flair. Idris Elba also puts in a badass supporting performance as some sword-wielding guardian god named Heimdall.
It's when the character Thor comes crashing down to earth that the film does as well. I get the contrast they were going for, but the tiny New Mexican desert town Thor spends most of the movie in looks like a movie set, seemingly populated by about fifty people, and is utterly absent the big, sprawling feel these superhero sagas demand. The action scenes are either overly busy or too dark to make anything out and Natalie Portman's character is a shallow one-note cipher even by summer action flick romantic interest standards, which is especially a shame seeing she's fresh off one of the best performances of the last decade in Black Swan. And, just like in Iron Man 2, an irritating portion of screentime is dedicated not to telling the film's own story but to setting up 2012's The Avengers, including a cameo from Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye shoehorned in with such force I actually felt embarrassed.
Verdict: Well, the villain Loki (played with slimy if less than intimidating charm by Tom Hiddleston) is apparently going to be in The Avengers along with Thor himself, so it's probably a good idea to see this film if only to help set that one up. Under no circumstances should you consider purchasing it, but Netflix it at some point before May 2012.
I feel like I enjoyed Priest just a tiny bit more than America's critic collective, which is shocking seeing as I thought director Scott Stewart's last movie Legion was pretty much one of the worst theatrical releases ever. I'm not saying it even vaguely approximates goodness, but damn, feedback was harsh.
The movie wastes little time on plot, exposition, or mythology outside of a somewhat cool animated opening which runs a few minutes and explains how vampires came to take over the world until everyone was left holed up in cities. Then it's quickly off to the races as Paul Bettany's niece gets kidnapped by the vampire menace and he heads out into the desert and starts killing bad guys en masse. Like half of the film's runtime is action, just slashing and hacking and shooting and motorcycles and fighting on top of trains. It's sublimely stupid but has a nice if derivative visual aesthetic; Blade Runner in the city, pure western pulp on the outside. But the characters are lumps of nothing and the screenplay atrocious, so don't get too excited.
Verdict: Not worth your time, though I grant that it's still a better vampire flick than any of the three Twilights to date.
X-Men: First Class
I LOVED X-Men: First Class. It's so fun and so energetic and so colorful and so cool, which I guess shouldn't surprise seeing as it's from Matthew Vaughn, who directed the also really fun Stardust and Kick-Ass. But I honestly wasn't looking forward to this much after The Last Stand and Wolverine, so it was still an awesome surprise and indisputable proof that sometimes it's filmmakers that matter, not franchises. I can't believe Vaughn put this movie together with a turnaround time of a year, shorter than any other movie on this list. It mixes Cold War political intrigue, awesome mutant powers, legitimately great humor, pure aesthetic style and an amazing performance from Michael Fassbender as Magneto for a dizzyingly entertaining whole that's absolutely one of the best franchise prequels of all time (not as good as Casino Royale or Batman Begins, but those are reboots, not prequels).
Fassbender in particular deserves spotlighting. I also enjoyed James McAvoy as Charles Xavier, Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, Rose Byrne as Moira MacTaggert and Kevin Bacon as the villain, but Fassbender's reimagining of Magneto as a badass James Bondian Nazi hunter was so utterly cool that it all but erased Ian McKellen's interpretation for me. And Ian McKellen is one of the greatest actors of all time, so that's not something I say lightly. In a just world the performance would get a Johnny Depp-in-Pirates of the Caribbean-style "hey, genre movies exist!" Best Actor nomination. I know that won't happen, but it doesn't change the fact that Fassbender is utterly (please forgive me for this terrible pun I'm about to inflict) magnetic.
If I were to critique I'd probably point out the fact that (spoilers) out of only two black characters, one turns evil and one dies after about five minutes of screentime, (end spoilers) but that could be fixed if they'd give Vaughn the chance to make a sequel. Part of me worries that a sequel might wind up being a Matrix or Iron Man situation and just cheapen the original, but damn it, I wanna see Fassbender play Magneto again. Matthew Vaughn is one of the few directors working who still maintains a 1.0 batting average when it comes to making great films, and I see no sign his talent is about to give out now. He's up there with Nolan, Scorsese, Wright, and Aronofsky for me. This movie is awesome.
Verdict: Buy it, watch it, cherish it. If you opt otherwise, Wolverine can tell you what's up.
I wanted to like this movie, not because of the Green Lantern character or mythology (which this movie is and will probably remain my only contact with in my life, barring a sequel), but because director Martin Campbell also directed GoldenEye and Casino Royale, two of my favorite movies of all time. One man, two great films, I was hoping it was a pattern. But alas, the critical and relative box office drubbing Green Lantern received was spot on.
And it's a shame, because I really admire the epic, encompassing-the-fate-of-the-entire-universe space opera vibe that Campbell and team were aiming for here, more Star Wars than Spider-Man. This movie has journeys across the galaxy and visits to other planets, a freaky throne room of space gods, an evil alien the size of a Star Destroyer, superhero armies, an entire city being menaced with thousands of people running screaming through the streets, a battle on the surface of the sun. It's huge! It's also really cartoony, absent a thread of tension, filled with terrible attempts at humor and populated by horrible characters!
Granted, Ryan Reynold's Hal Jordan / Green Lantern does have a personality, but it's been ripped directly from Downey Jr.'s Iron Man and shaded with the most embarrassingly generic dead father backstory. The villains suck. Every beat of the plot is hideously predictable and full of holes even within the fantastic nature of its own universe (hundreds of equally powerful Green Lanterns and Ryan Reynolds has to fight the planet-eating alien menace all alone because… ?). I'd love to see an engaging space opera fantasy, but this ain't it. Hell, Attack of the Clones was better.
Verdict: In brightest day, in blackest night, this movie must escape your sight
Now this one was entertaining. I liked it a lot. And that's probably due to the fact that it doesn't follow the traditional, now cliché superhero story arc we've become accustomed to in the years since Spider-Man, instead taking the flesh of a superhero flick and wrapping it around the bones of a World War II saga. I absolutely love that they went full 1940s period piece with this material, and I also love that they didn't make the character of Captain America into a glib fast-talker in the mold of Iron Man as Green Lantern did with its hero. He's just a good, heroic guy who happens to get himself juiced up with superhero serum, almost archaic in this day and age. Which works since the film isn't set in this day and age.
The special effects are among the only special effects of the year to genuinely impress me – the manner in which they shrunk Chris Evans' muscular body into short and scrawny form for the pre-super serum first act is mystifying in how good and how seamless it looks – the action scenes are fun, the adventure robust, and the movie blissfully doesn't retreat from its inherent cheese. I mean, the villain is a super Nazi played by Agent Smith whose face is a red skull and claims that Hitler is an underachiever. That's just great, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
Like in Thor, there's a little bit of The Avengers setup, but unlike in Thor it's actually a little bit. Two or three minutes, and it's stuck at the end of the movie rather than being aggravatingly diluted through the duration. I mean, I'm looking forward to The Avengers a lot, even though this is the only genuinely good movie it's stemming from. But I like the Avengers stuff at the end, as in this film and the first Iron Man, not mixed throughout as in Thor and Iron Man 2. I like ice cream, but I want it at the end, not mixed in with bites of my hamburger.
Verdict: Unquestionably worth a rental. Possibly even a purchase if you can get it on the cheap and dig its somewhat kitschy World War II vibe.
Cowboys & Aliens
Far and away the best thing that Cowboys & Aliens has to offer is a Harrison Ford who appears shockingly alert and engaged in the material. I mean, he growls and glowers and glares with full-frontal Fordiness in a way that easily trumps his performance in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, though not Air Force One. If nothing else I enjoyed seeing one of the great movie stars do his thang once again, and Daniel Craig also does a good job as your archetypal Eastwoodian Western tough guy.
Beyond that… eh. There's a few decent action scenes, though nothing to write home about and without any individual moment that will make you go "whoa!" or even bother perking up. There is a plot twist involving a character's identity about halfway through, but the character hasn't been shaded or established enough beforehand for the reveal to inspire much more than "oh, that's nice." The biggest problem is the movie's severe faceless villain syndrome; the black CGI aliens pose a threat, sure, but they feel unoriginal and devoid of any zip, distinction, or personality. They just aren't any fun to root against, or at least not any more than a sufficiently large and intimidating boulder might be. Actually, now that I think of it, Harrison Ford faced off against the greatest boulder in movie history, so I take that back. Compared to Jon Favreau's other films, this is definitely more an Iron Man 2 than an Iron Man.
Verdict: Possibly worth a Netflixing. A Watch Instantly Netflixing for sure. But not a purchase even at a discount.
Conan the Barbarian
For the first half-hour or so of the Conan the Barbarian reboot I was thinking "man, the critics were wrong, this rocks!" The movie opens with a Morgan Freeman (!!) voiceover establishing the mythology followed immediately by Conan being born on a battlefield via sword C-section and held into the air by a screaming Ron Perlman. Then cut to years later and boy Conan has his village slaughtered and cuts off a bad guy's nose before his father is killed via molten metal. Cut to years later again and adult Conan rescues a bunch of topless slave wenches, hangs out with them (still topless) at a tavern, gets into a bar fight, then meets the guy whose nose he cut off and tortures him by sticking his finger up the guy's gaping nose-hole while the guy pisses himself before throwing him to his own slaves to be torn apart. And I was like, this is pure barbarian, baby!
But then the main plot kicks in, and what a boring plot it is. Conan, seeking the man who led the attack on his boyhood village, winds up having to babysit this woman named Tamara, and they have a Generic Action Movie Romance. Conan spends much of the rest of the film battling CGI sand people and CGI tentacle creatures and the awesomeness, bloodiness, and frequency of his slaughter takes an incredibly sharp nosedive. The movie ultimately loses all the cheesy charm of its first act and becomes overly serious for a story that doesn't warrant said seriousness in any way. The entire climactic sequence, which includes the CGI tentacle creature I just mentioned, is somehow less thrilling than the climactic sequence of the stoner fantasy comedy Your Highness from earlier this year. I guess I shouldn't have expected any better from the director of the 2009 Friday the 13th reboot.
And again, like Green Lantern, it's a shame, because the thought of Conan the Barbarian being awesome, making bank, and leading to a resurgence in violent R-rated 80s-style barbarian fantasy pleased me just as much as hearing the lamentation of his enemies' women pleases Conan. But it sucked, and Conan himself could learn something from the manner in which his film was spectacularly slaughtered at the box office. Nope, consider the barbarian genre dead and buried.
Verdict: Stick with the 1982 version.
Category winner: X-Men: First Class with little contest. It's not only the best superhero flick of 2011 but one of the best movies, period. There's modest pulp adventure fun to be found in Captain America, but First Class sweeps it aside with pure cool.