SCOTT FOUNDAS: And so another summer movie season comes to an end, with both a bang (in terms of record-breaking box office) and the collective whimpers of ousted executives and even an entire studio placed on and off the chopping block by hedge fund managers. Indeed, the behind-the-scenes drama at Sony -- complete with third-act cameo by George Clooney in Norma Rae mode -- would have made for a better movie called "Paranoia" than the one that will already have vacated multiplexes by the time you're reading this.
Certainly, in terms of original ideas at the movies, this summer was more of a winter of discontent, with so many sequels, remakes and reboots that, on any number of weeks, fully half of the films in the box-office top 10 had some kind of number in their titles. This isn't always a bad thing: two of my favorite movies of the season, "Fast and Furious 6" and "Star Trek Into Darkness," were sequels that equaled or bettered their predecessors both artistically and commercially. Still, as the dust settles, Oscar season shifts into gear, and we prepare to decamp for the fall festival trifecta of Venice, Telluride and Toronto, it seemed a good moment to take stock of the highs, lows and curious in-betweens of the past few months.
The Lone Ranger." Personally, I'll always remember this as the summer that film criticism suddenly became relevant again -- at least according to Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer and Jerry Bruckheimer, who decided to lay the blame for their epic box office failure at the collective feet of all those mean, mean critics who ganged up on their poor, defenseless blockbuster. To hear their petulant whining, you'd almost think critics didn't just pan "The Lone Ranger" but wrote, directed and starred in it, too.
I was particularly amused by Hammer's suggestion that the members of our inglorious profession "tried to do the same thing with 'World War Z.' It didn't work, the movie was successful." Hammer must not read many reviews (a shame, as he got a few good ones for "The Social Network"), or he'd have known that "World War Z," which overcame horrendous pre-release buzz to become one of the summer's major hits, actually drew solid, appreciative reviews across the board. It just goes to show that while the critics sometimes have their knives out for a movie, they'll happily put them away if what's onscreen actually surprises them. The ironic thing is that several of them did precisely that in the case of "The Lone Ranger," a movie that was by no means unanimously hated, and which had its fair share of defenders. I think it's a messy, often misguided but sometimes glorious sprawl of a movie that, at its infrequent best, reminded me just how rare it is to see a Western mounted on this sort of scale anymore.
PETER DEBRUGE: Movie studios have done their damnedest to render film critics irrelevant, and the idea that we moved the needle on any of the summer blockbusters, positive or negative, boggles the mind. This season, Paramount extended its practice of inviting fanboy press to early screenings, canvassing their reactions and then setting review embargoes according to the level of enthusiasm they heard back -- a way of ensuring that the first wave of reviews on "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," "Star Trek Into Darkness" and "World War Z" came from the pundits most inclined to appreciate those films.
These days, bombastic marketing, not thoughtful analysis, compels people to see movies; our job is to help champion the tiny treasures and hold the studios accountable for the franchise pictures they produce. As for "The Lone Ranger," it's rare to see Westerns mounted on any scale anymore, though I for one wouldn't mind if Hollywood packed up their tentpoles and got back to the business of telling stories about characters, not comicbook heroes.
I just caught Destin Cretton's terrific new independent film, "Short Term 12," for the second time this weekend, and I was once again struck by how starved I am for these kinds of movies -- ones that engage with real life, not digital escapism. I love films that transport me into an unfamiliar world, but that needn't be science fiction. Sometimes, the most foreign environments are right under our noses, like the foster-care facility in "Short Term 12," or the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, as imagined by Ryan Coogler in "Fruitvale Station."
The best of these was far and away the most intimate: Sarah Polley's astonishingly personal documentary "Stories We Tell," in which the Canadian actress sets out to answer her biological father's identity. My favorite movies are great stories, not roller-coaster rides (though the two needn't be mutually exclusive), and watching Polley orchestrate staged scenes in order to convey a more honest truth struck me as more cutting edge than any of innovations we witnessed in 3D visual effects or ear-bleeding Atmos sound design this summer.
These films I mention were all hatched in the spirit of emotional connection, not to bludgeon the money out of our wallets in order to feed a cycle of more $200 million movies. In terms of box office, it's been a confusing few months, with record-high grosses (and record-high marketing spends) dampened by a string of massive bombs. But let's call it for what it is: a slump. The box office numbers are almost beside the point when the underlying creative elements are this stale. How can the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman possibly be a bigger story than the fact that one of the summer's most cinematic movies, "Behind the Candelabra," opened not in theaters but on HBO?
FOUNDAS: Peter, unlike Justin and Armie Hammer I won't hold you personally responsible for "The Lone Ranger's" failed fortunes. Probably that movie was always something of a quixotic undertaking: two-and-a-half-hours, based on a "known" property known mostly to people of our parents' generation, and directed with an almost stately, measured gait way out of step with the likes of today's Marvel Comics mega-blockbusters.
But I'll be damned if "Ranger" didn't have some utterly lovely things about it -- not least among them Johnny Depp's superb comic performance as Tonto, which was knee-jerk dismissed by a lot of critics as a rehash of his Jack Sparrow routine from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, but which is actually a much more delicate, nuanced piece of work. In fact, it's one of the best things he's ever done. Where Sparrow is all brash, rum-soaked comic bravado, Tonto is deadpan and soulful -- put there for comic relief, yes, but also projecting the sense of a deeply wounded man seeking cosmic justice. Given every opportunity to overplay, Depp keeps it close to the vest, comes up with marvelous inventions, and totally makes the character his own. He's especially moving in the framing scenes set in a San Francisco tent circus at the turn of the 20th century, with the image of a half-built Golden Gate Bridge looming in the distance -- exactly the sort of lyric touch Verbinski brings to his best passages. As a whole, the movie is wildly uneven, but always trying for something grand, and I'm inclined to agree with Matt Zoller Seitz when he suggests that, like a lot of other famous Hollywood flops before it, "The Lone Ranger" will look better through the prism of time.
And I totally get you, Peter, when you say it's time Hollywood packed up its tentpoles-not all of them, of course, but the endless, unvaried stream. I was stunned this summer by the number of sequels no one seemed to be clamoring for, to movies I hadn't even bothered to see the first time around: "Red 2," "Grown Ups 2," "Percy Jackson 2," "Kick-Ass 2." With the exception of "Grown Ups 2," those were all big underperformers, suggesting I wasn't alone in my lack of enthusiasm-and yet, in risk-averse, corporate-controlled Hollywood, they were doubtless easier to get made than any number of more original properties lacking in that much-coveted thing known as "pre-awareness." Surely some of those same executives are presently scratching their heads wondering why "Lee Daniels' The Butler," an old-fashioned adult historical drama made for a fraction of a studio-sized budget, scored a studio-sized opening ($24 million), especially when it's been widely reported that no studio wanted to make the movie, and that its producer, Laura Ziskin, literally spent her dying days journeying hither and yon in search of potential backers. "The Butler" is far from great, but one of the reasons it's been so warmly received is that it's injecting some much-needed variety into the homogeneous multiplex environment. "The Conjuring," another "surprise" summer hit -- a backhanded compliment Hollywood likes to pay to movies whose success it doesn't really understand -- made out like a bandit for similar reasons.
CHANG: "The Conjuring" remains, for me, one of the summer's indelible high points. It wasn't just the scariest mainstream horror movie to come along in ages but also the giddiest, the most exuberant, the one with the purest understanding of just how much pleasure a skillful director can wring from creaky doors and cobwebbed cellars and all the other musty cliches we associate with the haunted-house thriller. James Wan, a very talented magpie filmmaker, turns the derivative qualities of the genre into a virtue, and his feverish handheld cinematography - all those spooky, swooping tracking shots -- suggests a camera possessed by the literal spirit of Robert Altman. I personally can't wait to see what he does with "Insidious Chapter 2," to say nothing of "Fast & Furious 7."
Which, of course, brings us back to sequels, tentpoles and franchises. Let's give credit where credit is due: Like Scott, I had a blast at "Star Trek Into Darkness," and I'll even speak up in mild defense of "Iron Man 3," which in the hands of director Shane Black brought enough weird, jagged satirical edges and unexpected emotions to the table (the scenes with young Ty Simpkins in wintry Tennessee stick in my memory) to avoid being a totally depersonalized clunkfest. And I would be remiss not to point out that my favorite movie of the summer and the year to date, Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight," is of course a sequel -- the sort of sequel that exalts the very notion of sequels.
In one of the more amusing moments in the not-very-good but weirdly compelling "Kick-Ass 2," Kick-Ass is seen wearing a T-shirt that reads "I HATE REBOOTS." Who doesn't sympathize? I know none of us was particularly keen on Zack Snyder's Superman reboot "Man of Steel," which simply made me long to see a version not just produced but also directed by Christopher Nolan. I've already written at length about why, by contrast, "The Wolverine" strikes me as the best of the summer's many comicbook movies, and that film is, for all intents and purposes, a reboot, albeit one that retains the one element of the franchise that indisputably works (Hugh Jackman). Even "The Lone Ranger" is a reboot, a bold attempt to reclaim a beloved cultural relic and reverse-engineer it into the stuff of modern movie myth. Still, I doubt anyone will be rushing to hit Ctrl-Alt-Delete on that particular property anytime soon.
DEBRUGE: Having written "The Lone Ranger's" death sentence (I jest), it hardly seems fair to pile on for the autopsy, but I think Johnny Depp's approach to Tonto was a huge miscalculation -- hardly a Jack Sparrow rehash, but the latest invention in the portfolio of hit-and-miss eccentrics for which he's known. To make Tonto work, he needed to "Jar-Jar Binks it up," to make the performance bigger and more expressive, so the character wouldn't disappear under the face paint, stuffed-bird hat and overall crowded surroundings.
"Pacific Rim" faced the same problem, creating a production so massive -- with skyscraper-tall mecha duking it out against a rotating gallery of monsters -- that it was easy to lose track of the humans that should have made us care more about the story. This is the risk that this new breed of summer movie faces when spectacle becomes the raison d'etre, rather than the added value to a character who grabs your interest from the outset, as Matt Damon did for me in "Elysium." I'd always felt that "Superman" was the most vanilla of the comicbook champs, but "Man of Steel" merely proved it so.
Summer Movies in Review: Lone Rangers and Game Changers
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