Movie Article

Some Like It Hot...

Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum give their take on the lackluster crop of films that left them more exhausted than exhilarated

Our critics weigh in on the summer movie season

OWEN
Do you hear that great big whooshing sound, Lisa? It's Hollywood letting out a collective sigh of relief now that the summer movie box office returns are (mostly) in. The news has been good: Despite intimidating ticket prices, noisy megaplexes, and the rapid ascent of DVD culture as spurred by increasingly deluxe home-viewing systems, the popcorn season that is just finishing up represented a big bounce back from last year's doldrums. People are going to the movies again! In something resembling droves! To me, though, Hollywood's Comeback Summer is laced with irony, since everyone seems to agree that the films themselves left something to be desired. By now, do you think there's any correlation between box office revenue and our love for the movies? Or is it all an arbitrary up-and-down cycle that means little, positive or negative, for cinema as we know it?

LISA
Jeez, Owen, I'm the last person to ask about trends in box office revenue: I'm still getting calls for my resignation following my negative review of the summer's most colossal success — arrrgghh, I mean Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest — as if failure to reflect popular taste represents a critical liability. Who am I (the critics of this critic demand) to tell $400 million worth of moviegoers that they're wrong about their consumer choice?

OWEN
Maybe I should join your club, Lisa. I've gotten the same letters about my review of Little Miss Sunshine, the sheer volume of which makes me suspect that it could turn out to be the crossover smash of the millennium: My Big Fat Greek Sunshine. Actually, I think I know why readers get so incensed when we beat up on a movie they love. It's what draws me to this business in the first place — the fierce, almost protective passion that people still feel for movies. I say, Amen to that.

LISA
Yeah yeah yeah, everyone's right, and no one is wrong. But what if that's not true? Part of my despair this season — and I do think I've settled into a funque-de big-studio cinema in a way I haven't during past summers of escapist junque is that with so much commerce riding on projects ''not of the heart but of the glands'' (as that old cineast William Faulkner might say), there's little reason for movie lovers to further their studies in what used to be called movie literacy. To put it another way, serve up enough fast food, and pretty soon lard becomes the dinnertime standard. More than ever in this hot season, quality cinematic storytelling has been an almost accidental component of what succeeded, what flopped, what's been loved, and what's been ignored. Click, Mission: Impossible III, X-Men: The Last Stand, Nacho Libre, or The Da Vinci Code — each unhappy picture may be greasy in its own way, but taken together, the menu is a deadly heart attack.

OWEN
It all tastes a bit too much the same. I liked a few of the hits, such as M:I-3 and Superman Returns, but big-screen summer amusement has become a relative concept, and a ponderous one at that. Most of these films are working so damned hard to entertain you, bamboozling you with their tent-pole mythologies, their bigger-better-wowier F/X, that they end up weighing you down. What used to be called ''escapism'' has, in a movie like X3 or Lady in the Water or even Miami Vice or A Scanner Darkly, become a top-heavy feat of technology, and you can taste the sweat — of the filmmakers, and of the executives breathing down their necks.

LISA
Pause for a minute while you're tasting sweat: I think it's hellishly knotted, but I'd never include A Scanner Darkly — Richard Linklater's ardent, questing, experimental interpretation of a Philip K. Dick conundrum, made with the rotoscoping technique some tire of but I totally dig — in the same indictment of escapism as lazy X3 or empty, style-over-story Miami Vice.

OWEN
Well, I thought that A Scanner Darkly was joyless, opaque, and pretty awful. Pirates, on the other hand, connected with audiences because it became an ironic antidote to the summer movies: an escape from escapism. Yes, the big megabuck franchise money was riding on it, but it was a rare throwaway romp, with characters you didn't have to pretend to care about and a one-thing-after-another silliness that made it, in essence, a jaunty, disreputable sequel to the Indiana Jones films. It really took its cue from Johnny Depp, who winks at the whole overblown blockbuster machinery, even as he's now part of it.

LISA
A throwaway romp? The thing was built like the monorail to JFK airport — graceless and clunky. And enough with Depp, already (who may have winked in the original, but now tugs on his eye like a vaudeville sharpie). The best-made and most sophisticated romps I've seen this summer have all been of an animated variety: Cars, Monster House, and The Ant Bully. Anyway, before I forget, will you sign my petition to make sure that the small, stunning American indie Half Nelson — one of the best movies of the year, let alone the summer gets the marketing care and support it needs to entice audiences and earn Ryan Gosling the Oscar nomination he deserves?

OWEN
Let's not speed so quickly past Cars. On this one, Lisa, we're in zooming harmony: I think it's the most luscious entertainment I saw all summer — not quite a great Pixar film, like Toy Story or The Incredibles, but a lovely and inspired one. If there's any actor I'd give an award to, it's Paul Newman for his sublime gruffness. He rooted the movie, and so did its deep nostalgia for a handmade, mom-and-pop, neon-roadside America that's been squashed by corporate NASCAR glitz.

Half Nelson, I have to confess, I think you and a lot of other critics have gotten a little too excited about. We're all eager to find the summer's Great Indie Hope (forgive me, but I'm not counting My Big Fat Greek Sunshine), and this is a compelling fragment of a movie, yet in demonstrating the theory that idealistic inner-city teachers should avoid becoming crackheads, I wish it didn't sanctify the girl who befriends Ryan Gosling.

LISA
What's with you killjoys who dump all over the stuff we movie lovers adore?

OWEN
Here's my true killjoy statement, and I'm not ashamed: Cars aside, my favorite movie of the summer was the urgent, brainy, and deeply unblockbustery An Inconvenient Truth, starring the unlikeliest movie star of the year, Al Gore. It was my great escape — from the delusions threatening our world.

LISA
Al Gore, movie star? What next, M. Night Shyamalan playing a visionary author? Only in the summer, kids.

Originally posted Aug 18, 2006 Published in issue #893 Aug 25, 2006 Order article reprints
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