So Long! Farewell!

Notes from the end of summer 2013


Labor Day isn’t until next week, but for all practical intents and purposes it’s time to say goodbye to the summer season. This past weekend Suz and I drove Sarah back to Christendom College — and this week I begin year 2 of my diaconal studies at Immaculate Conception Seminary.

And that means that, along with my studies, it’s time, alas, to resume my semi-hiatus from film reviewing. Over the summer I enjoyed a prolific streak, reviewing movies almost every week, in writing, in 60-second reviews and on “Reel Faith.” (By the way, our “Reel Faith” summer season finale, with summer round-up and fall preview, is online at the show’s website.)

Now, though, it’s time to go back to reviewing austerity: one new review a month, plus my Blu-ray/DVD Picks column and my work with Catholic Digest.

I enjoyed reviewing movies this summer far more than I enjoyed the movies themselves — and perhaps my readers enjoyed the reviews more than the movies as well.

By far the most-read and most-commented reviews I wrote were also the most critical: Warner Bros’ grim, gritty Man of Steel, which I found off-putting in many respects, and Disney’s farcical, violent The Lone Ranger, which I loathed as I have loathed few Hollywood spectacles.

Well, it was that kind of year. 2013 must be some kind of record for Hollywood’s lamest summer movie season, certainly in the years I’ve been writing reviews. Till now 2010 probably held that distinction — but at least 2010 offered Inception and Toy Story 3.

What did Hollywood offer in 2013? Very little — for anyone.

The year’s two biggest films so far, the spring hit Iron Man 3 and the popular animated sequel Despicable Me 2, are sequels coasting on the established charm of their leading men, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark and Steve Carell as Gru.

Both are kind of a mess plot-wise, and neither quite pulls off the character arc for the hero that each seems to be reaching for. Iron Man 3 spoils the fun by ramping up the violence, with human time bombs and supervillains who must be killed to be stopped. Despicable Me 2 relies too much on the popular yellow Minions, who, in fairness, are still quite funny.

Both films also misuse their neglected leading ladies — strangely, in opposite ways. Gru’s love interest, a secret agent voiced by Kristen Wiig, is refreshingly not made so super-compentent that she shows up Gru at every turn — but in the end she’s reduced to damsel-in-distress status, instead of effectively partnering with Gru. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts also has a brief stint as a damsel in distress — but then the film goes too far in the other direction, turning her into an high-powered action heroine in a way that really doesn’t suit the character, whose down-to-earthness has always kept Tony grounded.

My favorite popcorn action film of the summer, The Wolverine, left U.S. audiences cool. I enjoyed the movie’s Eastern-Western vibe and refreshingly human-scaled story, with the fate of the world not hanging in the balance and cities not leveled by brawling titans. I also enjoyed Star Trek: Into Darkness, more for the evocation of characters I enjoy and its propulsive energy than for its overly reverential indebtedness to existing Trek canon — something the reboot should have freed the filmmakers from. 

World War Z wasn’t bad: a quasi-realistic approach to a global zombie apocalypse scenario that played more like a pandemic movie, like Contagion, than a zombie movie per se.

A lot of people dug Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro’s giant-robots-vs-giant-monsters homage to Japanese kaiju (monster) and mecha cinema. I wanted to dig it, but the characters were so bland, the dialogue so dull and even the action so homogenous that it just didn’t grab me.

My favorite Hollywood family film, the underachieving Pixar sequel Monsters University, raised its game a bit in the third act by daring to challenge the ubiquitous family-film piety that anyone can achieve anything they put their mind to if they just believe in themselves.

DreamWorks’ Turbo and Disney’s Planes weren’t as brave as that, though each had other things going for them. Turbo was more sophisticated and cleverly made, especially in the first act; Planes had a refreshing simplicity and more redemptive story elements.

I liked a lot of things about Lee Daniels’ The Butler, currently king of the box office. Forrest Whittaker and Oprah Winfrey are both excellent; I wish the story were more about their relationship and Whittaker’s White House career, and less about their son David Oyelowo’s Forrest Gumpish sprint through the whole history of the Civil Rights movement. I do appreciate the fact that, unlike The Help, The Butler focuses solidly on its black characters, with no white character having more than a supporting role. Unfortunately, in the end the film basically devolves into a political commercial for the Democratic party.

Stepping outside the Hollywood mainstream, Fruitvale Station offered a far more compelling and provocative look at issues of race and justice. (Another movie worth mentioning in this connection is this spring’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42, though it focused at least as much on Harrison Ford’s heroic Branch Rickey as its sports-icon protagonist.)

Finally, two non-Hollywood coming-of-age stories with good-hearted moral themes were among the summer’s more worthwhile, less seen films. The Way, Way Back was a shaggy Steve Carell comedy-drama highlighting our culture’s crisis of fatherhood. Then there’s Studio Ghibli’s latest, From Up on Poppy Hill, co-written by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki and directed by his son Goro (on home video next week).

Will the fall and awards seasons redeem 2013 for Hollywood? I’m not optimistic. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the next installment of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy, and while I appreciated some things about the first Hunger Games movie, I’m not exactly eager for the sequel. Nor do I have high hopes for the next Marvel sequel, Thor: The Dark World.

A few movies look potentially interesting. After Children of Men, I’m interested in Alfonso Cuaron’s new project, a sci-fi thriller called Gravity starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Ender’s Game could go either way.

I would love for George Clooney’s The Monuments Men to be this year’s Argo. And while I’m not a fan of Mary Poppins, Tom Hanks as Walt Disney has me intrigued by Saving Mr. Banks.

Either way, when the fall semester ends, I’ll be back to wrap up this sorry movie year. And when next summer rolls around, I’ll be halfway through my diaconal studies!

Decent Films Doings