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Summer 2010: Goodbye to all that

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 14, 2010 - As the summer movie season began, the first thing one might have detected was a sense of irrelevancy. That there would be a phalanx of sequels, comic book heroes and retreads of well-known pop-culture material was to be expected. What was less evident at first was a sense that many of this year's offerings were not just familiar but ... unnecessary.

The combined efforts of that coveted marketing force, "synergy" (the thing that puts the "Sex and the City" ladies on two out of every three magazine covers and guarantees that 85 percent of the products on your supermarket shelves have a picture of Shrek on them) and the movie industry's allegiance to "franchises" (an industry buzzword used to designate sequels, remakes, "reboots" or any film you feel as though you've already seen before you even enter the auditorium) had created an air of exhaustion, a sense that once the marketing campaigns and promotional tie-ins are launched, the movies themselves were irrelevant.

Was anyone really excited by the prospect of another version of the Robin Hood legend? Another "Shrek" sequel? Had it really been 10 years since we'd had a movie based on a "Saturday Night Live" sketch? Had anyone actually noticed their absence?

It was even hard to work up much enthusiasm for "Iron Man 2," the sequel to one of the more tolerable super-hero adventures of the past few years, the good will earned by Robert Downey Jr. for his performance in the first installment having been seriously eroded by the sourness of "Sherlock Holmes."

You might argue that the same claims could be made against the summer blockbusters of any previous year, but this year something happened that defied Hollywood's predictions. To the surprise of the film companies, who have incorporated H.L. Mencken's maxim about the intelligence of the public  into every annual financial report they write, audiences just weren't all that interested.

Sure, there were predictable successes like "Toy Story 3" and the latest "Twilight" installment, but a surprisingly large number of the summer's films, including many of those launched in the first few weeks, were simply ignored. People just weren't that interested in Tom Cruise, in Nicholas Cage, in Marmaduke, Jonah Hex, the Prince of Persia or even in those sexy city girls. Familiarity bred ... not contempt, just a serious case of overexposure.

What, then, was there to see see this summer (deliberately excluding things like "Winter's Bone," "Exit Through the Gift Shop," "The Killer Inside Me"and Alain Resnais' "Wild Grass," films which happened to open during this time but weren't "summer movies" in the strictest sense)? Here are my observations from the long, hot season:

"Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" are arguably two of the finest animated features ever made, but after having let more than 10 years lapse without a follow-up, one could easily suspect that the almost infallible forces of Pixar were simply trying to cash in on the current 3-D mania with "Toy Story 3." As it turns out, that's not the case at all. Woody and Buzz are as compelling a pair of heroes as ever; and the central theme of the series, "living" toys having to work out their status as quasi-imaginary characters subject to the whims of their owners, takes a poignant new twist as human toy-owner Andy, now headed for college, involuntarily passes the familiar characters on to a day-care center.

The genius of the "Toy Story" films lies in their ability to touch on the central metaphor not only of the greatest animated film of all time, "Pinocchio" (don't argue with me; this is not a negotiable point) but of animation itself: We invest our emotional energy into the characters, just as a child does with its playthings. The animator and the audience share the ability to give them life.

(People who chose to see "Toy Story 3" in its "flat" version have told me that the short cartoon preceding it, "Day and Night," was one of the studio's weaker efforts. Spring for the 3-D glasses, and you'll see the most original and innovative use of 3-D I've seen since 1975's "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein"; it's an imaginative tour-de-force that exploits the real capabilities of depth on screen, establishing the surface space of the screen and then letting you peek behind it.)

I saw "Get Me to the Greek" strictly out of convenience (I was far from home, trying to dodge both the heat and a barrage of phone calls from my day job, and the only other film starting within 45 minutes at the closest multiplex was "Sex and the City 2"). If I were forced to take a test on it today, I'd fail miserably, so little did it register in my memory. A loose sequel to "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" (which I haven't seen), it's typical of the current stuck-in-adolescence phase of American comedy - less repugnant than "The Hangover" but with an oddly miscalculated sentimental streak. Russel Brand plays a given-to-excess rock star who learns that love is all that matters - or something like that. The mystery of why he is referred to as a comedian remains unsolved. Brief review applying Thumper's rule: It was a lot better than "Hot Tub Time Machine."

"The Other Guys" was more memorable, although it's too bumpy and uneven to be called a success. As much as I like Will Farrell and director/co-author Adam McKay, (who gave us "Talladega Nights" and can rest on their laurels for at least a decade), this cop movie/financial scandal satire was an uneven collection of sketches that backed down every time it seemed to be coming close to any real satirical points. It's not a failure by any means (just getting Michael Keaton back in a comic role would be redemption enough), but its much discussed end credits (you can find them here  suggest a more serious satiric target that the film itself never hits.

But comedies were an endangered species this summer. The real dish being served is action (boom!), action (bang!) and a third course of action (kablooie!!!), with a little international flavor on the side, as every studio looks for its own answer to the puzzling popularity of the Jason Bourne films. The most blatant example of a Bourne Again hopeful was "Salt," in which Angelina Jolie is a double/triple/quadruple agent/Manchurian Candidate simultaneously working for, betraying and defeating the Russians and the Secret Service. Despite unpleasant memories of Jolie's last big-bang workout "wanted," I was actually optimistic about seeing "Salt," having it heard it described as "the best political thriller of the year."

Unfortunately, this is true only if your idea of political discourse consists of the ability to fire an automatic weapon in one hand, lob a grenade into a stairwell with the other, jump up and reload while doing a 360-degree backflip. It's hyperkinetic and relentlessly silly, but it would be unfair to dismiss "Salt" as a cheesy, violent comic book. Since none of Jolie's opponents come even close to matching her in acrobatics or firepower, it's actually more like a cheesy, violent videogame, a mid-80s Nintendo shooter where the character simply moves in a horizontal line destroying everything in her path.

In a sense, "Salt" reveals the dirty little secret of the high-profile films of the summer: They're all adolescent superhero stories, whether actually derived from a comic book or not. Even Christopher Nolan's much admired "Inception," the story of a team of international criminals who enter into their victims' dreams to steal or plant information, is just a super hero movie sans costumes. "Inception" provides a high level of nonsense as Leo and his friends leap from one psychic level to another, but it's nonsense nonetheless, as Nolan himself has admitted.

Still, it's fast-paced and you may even be willing to forgive some of its more sophomoric allusions (yes, there's really a character named Ariadne...) for the sake of the joyride. But as with Nolan's last film, another high-brow superhero effort, only with costumes, I found the director's superficial efforts to add gravitas to his comic-book landscape far less troubling that his complete disregard of any degree of ethics: It's not just that DiCaprio and his team are psychic thieves with no qualms - or any other kind of feeling - about their actions (at least the criminals in the "Oceans Eleven" films plan to enjoy their profits). It's that all of the complexities of the plot and self-conscious tweakings of Borgesian paradoxes are ultimately window dressing for a film with all the moral depth of a Rambo movie. Nolan's heroes gain entrance to the infinite labyrinth of the human mind, and all they can think is "Hey! Let's blow some stuff up!"

Compared to the bombast of "Inception" and "Salt," there was something almost likably lightweight about some of the summer's other explosion-heavy action films. "The A-Team" for example, was content to stick with the relatively modest goal of recreating (on a larger scale) the spirit of the unpretentious TV series of a few decades ago; the film is essentially a series of elaborate set-pieces in which Liam Neeson and his associates map out one seemingly impossible plan after another (a robbery, a jail break, etc...) in detail, then execute them. As action movies go, this is breezy, almost mechanical fun, tootling along from one trick to the next without trying to beat the audience senseless.

And then there's "The Expendables," which opens with a display of over-the-top violence so extreme that the remainder of the film is something of a relief. Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote and directed) has top-loaded his film with so many action-movie stars (even an unbilled appearance by Bruce Willis and the governor of California) that you can almost find yourself counting heads and wondering why Chuck Norris or Jean-Claude Van Damme were left out. (I admit that I'm not as well versed in current action stars and didn't recognize all of the brawny cast, many of whom are evidently retired athletes or Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans.) The plot must have gotten lost on Stallone's desk during an early revision, but that doesn't seem to matter much. The whole thing is, in fact, so big and stupid that it's one saving grace is that Stallone seems to realize just how big and stupid it is. And that, believe it or not, is a compliment.

And yes, before the summer was over, I broke down and saw "Iron Man 2," which is, if you haven't heard, about a fast-talking, emotionally troubled billionaire who occasionally puts on a big robot-like suit of armor and blows things up. Despite a tendency toward excessive wisecrackery and a slight increase in CGI mayhem (still well below the average for this sort of film), it preserves many of the assets of the earlier installment: breezy performances from Robert Downey Jr., and new cast members Don Cheadle, Scarlet Johannsen and Mickey Rourke, an emphasis on character and context instead of spectacle, and a genuine lack of pretentiousness. Director Jon Favreau (who also appears in a small role) has developed something of an unusual affinity for this kind of big-gun filmmaking; it may be juvenile, but he actually seems to care more about his playmates than he does about the high-tech toys.

There's an oft-quoted remark from Francois Truffaut: "I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between." For three months every year, you'd be hard pressed to find either of those two emotions at play on a movie screen. Fortunately, summer movies, like summer weather, eventually break and make way for the next season.

With Labor Day weekend, the festival season begins and word begins to creep out from Venice, from Toronto, from New York of new films with hardly a talking animal or caped crusader in the bunch. As the highlights from the various festivals make their way into general release (with new films from Scorsese, Godard, Eastwood, Woody Allen, Kelly Reichardt, Julie Taymor, Olivier Assayas, David Fincher and Errol Morris among the most anticipated), the overkill of the summer season becomes a memory. Goodbye "Prince of Persia,"I hardly knew ye!

The Lens is provied by Cinema St. Louis.

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