Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

As I was doing theatre walks at my full-time job recently, I saw posters such as “Magic Mike,” “The Expendables 2,” and thought about the two movies I had seen earlier that day (“Rock of Ages” and “That’s My Boy”), and began to ask myself the question above. Over the years, I’ve found that my criteria for a good (or even great) summer have changed over the years. Unfortunately, I don’t have the proper frame of reference to go back more than, say 20 years as I ponder the question, as I was either too young (or not enough of a movie buff) to really think about it.

Part of what’s led to my questioning has been the lack of significant quality I’ve found in most of THIS summer’s movies that I’ve seen. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to go and watch indies such as “Moonrise Kingdom” or “Hysteria” for a variety of reasons, although I will say, “DIY” screeners such as “The Night Never Sleeps” and “Starla” allow me to nourish my indie appetite. But just taking the big studio films into account, it seems as though with the exception of “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “Prometheus,” most of the major studio offerings have rated from simply good (“Dark Shadows,” “Snow White and the Huntsman”) to fairly okay (“The Dictator,” “Rock of Ages”) to just plain lousy (“Men in Black 3” and “That’s My Boy”). Of course, there’s a lot of time left for the summer to be redeemed, thanks to the likes of “Brave,” “Magic Mike” (I’m calling it now– this will be a girl’s night out, “Sex and the City”-like hit for WB), “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “The Bourne Legacy,” among others, but unless the likes of “Battleship” or “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” or “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” take me completely by surprise when I eventually see them, the first few weeks of Hollywood’s biggest season have left much to be desired.

Of course, basing decisions solely on box-office receipts clouds the issue profoundly, because, as any movie reviewer will tell you, big box-office doesn’t necessarily mean good filmmaking. (You hear that, “Twilight” franchise?) Really, any critical assessment of a season’s movie offerings boils down to the movies themselves, and not just the big, action epics (otherwise, 1996 would be one for the history books, with “Twister,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Independence Day,” “The Rock,” and others). Counter-programming, movies that don’t cater to teenage boys, is a vital piece of the summer movie puzzle; for instance, the likes of “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Sex and the City: The Movie,” and “The Help” catered to female audiences who may not have been terribly interested in “Superman Returns,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” or “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” And what about smaller, but no-less significant, touchstones as “Phenomenon,” “Clueless,” and “American Pie,” which had just the right amount of smart writing, or star power, to catch fire with audiences looking for more than just explosions?

Still, stereotypes and “group think” about what audiences supposedly “like” or “want to see” is part of why Hollywood has had a tough time connecting with audiences this summer. Just because people flocked to “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Alice in Wonderland” doesn’t mean they’re going to swarm on “Dark Shadows,” even if it contains a lot of the same creative voices. Yeah, the “Transformers” movies made an ocean-sized mountain of cash, but that doesn’t mean we want to see something like “Battleship” turned into a movie. And true, Adam Shankman won audiences over big-time with “Hairspray” (one of those smart instances of “counter-programming”), but that doesn’t mean you can hire him to direct movie star karaoke in “Rock of Ages,” and we’ll automatically go see it. And for the love of God, can we lay off the ludicrous level of sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, and “franchise” filmmaking that leads to creative trainwrecks like “Men in Black 3,” a sequel no one asked for, and which feels forced in every way?

So, what’s a good example of a “good” moviewatching summer for me? Well, a few years come to mind, like 1996 (“Twister,” “ID4,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Rock,” “Emma,” “The Frighteners,” “Phenomenon,” “Trainspotting,” and more), 2008 (“Wall-E,” “The Dark Knight,” “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” “Iron Man,” “Sex and the City,” “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” “Encounters at the End of the World,” and many others), 2002 (“Lilo & Stitch,” “Minority Report,” “Spider-Man,” “Windtalkers,” “The Bourne Identity,” “Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones”), and 1994 (“The Crow,” “Maverick,” “The Lion King,” “Speed,” “Clear and Present Danger,” “The Mask”). Of course, every year has its highlights (and I’m sure I’m missing several movies that have defined YOUR summers), so the best way to really look at it is to go through the typical “types” of movies one sees, and give you a rundown of some of my favorites. I hope you enjoy!

The Blockbusters: Ever since “Jaws” and “Star Wars” in the ’70s, the most common form of summer movie. They usually cost ungodly amounts of money; have scripts as shallow as a wading pool; and are focused around a particular star, established property, or a cutting-edge level of visual effects. Fun is usually enough, but when something truly inspired comes along (as was the case with “Face/Off”, “Jurassic Park”, “Spider-Man 2”, and “Inception”), believe me, audiences take notice, and are forever grateful.

The Prestige Films: Fun fact, folks: not every Oscar winner comes out in December. Point in fact, a lot of great films have found their way into multiplexes during the vacation months, and even if all of them don’t hit it big, others (“Saving Private Ryan”, “Apollo 13”, “Braveheart”, and “Inglourious Basterds”) play for months, and catch the Golden One’s eye.

The Comedy Smash: Regardless of quality, comedy almost always plays well during the summer, but every once in a while, one will come along, and catch on with people in a way that few really saw coming. Whether it’s a mega-blockbuster (like “The Hangover”) or a more measured success story (such as “American Pie”, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin”, and “Horrible Bosses”), there’s almost always one comedy that makes a run for the top of the box-office heap.

Family Favorites: With the kids out for summer, families will, invariably, hit the theatres with a vengeance. Usually, Disney or Dreamworks will win out with one of their animated adventures (like “Finding Nemo”, “Shrek”, and “Tarzan”), but sometimes, we do get a quality live-action movie that will play to the kid in all of us (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”).

Counter Intuitive: Similarly with prestige releases, there’s typically at least one movie that plays all summer long, gets people talking, and has audiences questioning why Hollywood doesn’t focus more energies on this type of film. Whether it’s a Hollywood film with Oscar aspirations (“Seabiscuit”, “The Truman Show”) or a low-budget film that speaks to a larger-than-expected audience (“Midnight in Paris”, “Fahrenheit 9/11”), this sort of counter-programming works miracles for the ‘Wood’s bottom line when a few of the bigger movies tank.

The Little Indie That Could: Hundreds of independent films are released in theatres each year, and for the adventurous moviegoer, they are a great way to get away from the explosions and mindlessness of your average Hollywood blockbuster. Even if they don’t light up the registers, movies like “Emma”, “Once”, “(500) Days of Summer” and “Before Sunset” find their ways into audience’s hearts, and in many cases, onto critic’s short lists come December.

Do You Like Scary Movies?: Who says October is the best time to be scared? Well, typically anyone with half a moviegoing brain, but that doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying to get people on edge throughout the rest of the year. And sometimes, summer can be a great chance for filmmakers to get people’s pulses pounding, whether it’s with a word-of-mouth must-see like “The Blair Witch Project” and “28 Days Later”, or a more artistic genre exercise such as “Drag Me to Hell” or “1408”.

Surprise Smashes: Here’s the thing about surprises, Hollywood: You can’t see them coming. Audiences are responsible for discovering a film’s worth, and if it takes them off-guard, you know they’re going to tell their friends. Surprises can’t be marketed, or duplicated; just ask the imitators that have tried to replicate the success of movies like “The Sixth Sense”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, “Forrest Gump”, and “District 9” over the years.

Ambitious Art, But Bad Box-Office: Not every summer has a film that audiences reject en mass, but don’t realize what they’re missing, but most do. Usually, it’s a heart-felt work from a great filmmaker (see “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and “Eyes Wide Shut”), but other times, it’s a big-budget experiment that just doesn’t find as large an audience it deserves (see “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Speed Racer”). Either way, there are always going to be fans that watch these films, and wish others had given them a chance.

Of course, I’m missing at least 20 years of great classics from the summer season, like every “Star Wars” film, the “Indiana Jones” adventures, a few “Harry Potter” movies, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” as well as a few other gems I have great fondness for (like “The Fifth Element,” “Conspiracy Theory,” et al), but this is just a sampling of the movies that have made my summers worth enjoying over the years, not a definitive list. That, I might save, for another time.

Viva La Resistance!

Brian Skutle
www.sonic-cinema.com

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