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Notes from the end of summer 2014


Well, here we are at the end of another busy summer season.

Sarah is back at Christendom, and I’m back at Immaculate Conception Seminary with my fellow diaconal candidates as we begin year 3 of our studies. More than halfway there!

This year, though, my retreat into reviewing semi-hiatus comes with a twist: I have a couple of exciting announcements coming in the short term.

Now, I’m sadly aware that I’ve been teasing a couple of big exciting announcements that keep on retreating indefinitely — but trust me, these ones are coming sooner rather than later. How much sooner? Next week, for one. For the other, the plan is by New Year’s, 2015, if not sooner. (These are both new announcements. I’ve made no progress lately on the others. Sorry!)

It was a busy summer season; it wasn’t a terribly good summer season — above all for family audiences, who were left almost completely out in the cold. Still, it was generally an improvement on last summer, particularly for popcorn spectacle and action.

This summer, we had at least three pretty terrific popcorn films: one dark and grim, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; one comic and colorful, Guardians of the Galaxy; and one in between, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Last summer had nothing in that league. The best popcorn film of summer 2013 for my money was The Wolverine, which was nifty but not outstanding.

Edge of Tomorrow was a better dystopian sci-fi war film than last summer’s World War Z. It might be cheating a bit to compare the Korean dystopian social parable Snowpiercer, which played on American screens this summer, to its Hollywood counterpart Elysium — but the comparison demands to be made anyway, since Snowpiercer succeeds precisely where Elysium fails, in taking seriously the cost of revolution.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was not well loved, but I persist in considering it an improvement on its predecessor and the first film to really capture the webslinger’s unique spirit. I’ll take that over last summer’s controversial sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness.

On the red side of the ledger, it’s true that Michael Bay had two movies this summer (one as director, one as producer), both based on 1980s kid franchises: Transformers: Age of Extinction and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. On the other hand, last summer gave us a pair of profoundly uninspiring reboots of two of pop culture’s most iconic heroes, Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger.

Granted, the latter were ambitious films that had passionate defenders, whereas no one could really feel passionate about Transformers or Turtles. But for that very reason I could never hate Transformers or Turtles the way I hate The Lone Ranger, or the way I hate things about Man of Steel. Corruptio optimi pessima; the better something is in principle, the worse it is when it goes bad. (The same is true of Bay’s “serious” movie last year, Pain & Gain, which doesn’t quite count as a summer movie.)

A similar argument could be made for Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules being a greater travesty than his 2013 summer flick Fast & Furious 6, if only because Hercules is a cultural figure worth caring about. I can’t quite extend this argument to Godzilla vs. Pacific Rim; that debate I leave to others. Other comparisons I won’t weigh in on include the latest comedies from Melissa McCarthy (Tammy vs. The Heat) and Adam Sandler (Blended vs. Grown Ups 2).

2013 had a number of critically respected coming-of-age films: Kings of Summer; The Spectacular Now; The Way, Way Back. This summer had only one, but it was a doozy: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a film that paints a young man’s entire life in a way no film has ever done before. Boyhood opened up Linklater’s creative sensibility to me in a way no previous film had done; I wasn’t a big fan of last year’s Before Midnight, but I’d be willing to watch it again now.

Not all comparisons favor 2014. Woody Allen’s 2013 offering Blue Jasmine was far more impressive than this summer’s limp, complacent Magic in the Moonlight. The Conjuring was a more satisfying Catholic-inflected horror film than Deliver Us From Evil. On the other hand, Deliver Us From Evil had what would surely be the best movie priest character in years, had not Calvary come along and given us an even better one, Brendan Gleeson’s tough-minded Irish pastor.

As for family films, while last summer had nothing better to offer than the middling Pixar prequel Monsters University — runners-up included Despicable Me 2, Planes and Turbo — that was still a lot more than this year’s miserable offerings. The summer’s only animated films were the disappointing sequels How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Planes 2, the latter of which some critics considered an improvement for abandoning the racing theme for aerial firefighting, but I considered a disappointment for the same reason. Do not get me started on Maleficent.

Above all, this summer had nothing to compare to last year’s stunning Fruitvale Station, one of 2013’s bumper crop of films about the African-American experience. I enjoyed this summer’s Get On Up, but there’s no contest. The Bling Ring, too, was a striking film with no obvious counterpart this year. This summer, my favorite indie is Jon Favreau’s Chef, which just happens to be back in theaters today. John Carney’s Begin Again, which is a lot like Chef and a lot like Carney’s 2007 film Once, is also worth seeing.

Looking ahead to fall, perhaps Disney’s Big Hero 6, or the macabre-looking The Boxtrolls or The Book of Life, will provide some relief for the dearth of decent family films. (I’m not expecting much from Penguins of Madagascar or the Night at the Museum threequel. I would love to be pleasantly surprised by Annie, starring Quvenzhané Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild.)

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is much anticipated, of course. I’m looking forward to the first half of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay. In a very different sense, I’m also looking forward to Peter Jackson finally wrapping up his time in Middle Earth. (No more gilding the dragon!)

The biggest wild card of the fall is probably Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. Will it be a worthy counterpart to Darren Aronofsky’s haunting, powerful Noah? Or will it be more like a Kingdom of Heaven prequel?

Either way, I’m looking forward to writing it up. In the meantime … watch this space.

Decent Films Doings