Movie Article

Gimme Swelter

EW critics' summer movie roundup -- Lisa Schwarzbaum and Owen Gleiberman tell you why they think this has been the best summer movie season in years

And so, let the nicest summer-movie-season critical rassling match ever begin...

LISA
I can tell it's the end of August because the big movie this week is about a giant fake snake. In other words, it's a good time to talk about what we've seen over the season now drawing to a close, the months traditionally devoted to dumbness. And what strikes me is how grown-up and sophisticated so many of the best films have been, as well as how bleakly, winterishly, maturely...sad.

Think about it: The best scary movie of the summer, ''Open Water,'' is about a couple's stressed-out relationship, full of accusations, recriminations, and atonement— with sharks thrown in. The season's best comic-book movie is about a young hero who longs to be an average guy with a girlfriend. Antisensational misery is borne without flinching in ''Maria Full of Grace,'' and matter-of-fact childhood terrorism propels ''Mean Creek,'' two of my other favorite films of the summer. And whatever you think of the rigging on which that canny agit-prop theater piece (and Cannes-y prize grabber) ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' is built, you can feel the authenticity of the filmmaker's anger and political despair.

Weird, isn't it? I've seen just as many fizzy comedies (''Shrek 2'') and crappy teen seat fillers (''A Cinderella Story'') as the muggy, out-of-school months usually cough up. Yet I'm convinced that there's something different in the air this summer, something that has allowed good, tough stuff to make it into the multiplexes—and to find an appreciative audience.

OWEN
Look, this was easily the best summer movie season in years, Lisa, and for the reason I think you're talking about: Even the franchises acquired a hint of gravity that lent them drama and heft, a sophisticated staying power. Just consider ''Harry Potter'' and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the first film in that series to embody the true terror and wonder of childhood. The Dementors in that movie weren't just great special effects—they were expressions of Harry's deepest fears. Or take ''The Bourne Supremacy,'' the rare thriller that's alive with tension in every scene, since you're never sure how, or even if, Jason Bourne is going to squirm away from his enemies. Matt Damon played Bourne with a bit of that haunted Ripley flair—the caginess that comes of desperation.

Why did these movies work so splendidly? I think both of them point to an exciting trend: the hiring by Hollywood of daring, eccentric, independent-in-every-way directors to build a better blockbuster. The trend was probably kicked off by Peter Jackson's success with ''The Lord of the Rings,'' and this summer it truly bore fruit. Sam Raimi, the director of ''SpiderMan 2'' dug into the full carny nightmare-fantasy potential of that material in a way that he didn't, really, in the first ''Spider-Man.'' Raimi, along with the Mexican-born filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, in ''The Prisoner of Azkaban,'' and England's Paul Greengrass, in ''Bourne,'' revitalized the very spirit of what it means to go to a sequel.

LISA
I'm with you about the importance of what you call ''independent-in-every-way'' directors in that success—although I'd ditch the I-word and use the out-of-fashion A-word, auteur, to describe what Cuarón, Raimi, and Greengrass et al have achieved. The accomplishment isn't that Cuarón is working by the seat of his indie pants in ''Azkaban'' (since nobody with so huge a corporate investment behind him is ever a free bird). Rather, I think the triumph is that even within the studio system, the filmmaker has been able to impose his own vision on the franchise. (Plus, I'm hoping the word auteur will give you an itch.)

OWEN
Actually, it gives me a headache. But I take your point. It's possible to make a mega-budget movie with personality.

LISA
From you, I'll accept ''personality'' as a sign that you're for that gift subscription to Cahiers du Cinéma. Seriously, this summer has been a model of an integrated indio (or is it stindie?) slate, driven by filmmakers rather than stars: Even ''Collateral'' belongs more to Michael Mann than it does to Tom Cruise. And certainly the planets of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wouldn't rotate so beautifully in ''Before Sunset'' without Richard Linklater's control of the heavens. ''Napoleon Dynamite,'' on the other hand -- a twee comedy out of Sundance that I disliked for its forced zaniness but many are loving for its forced zaniness -- is about nothing but directorial quirk, with no concern for the dignity of the characters proffered for our amusement.

OWEN
I'm only too happy to join you in trashing that horrid, one-joke piece of Gen-why? fraudulence. To me, ''Napoleon Dynamite'' is a wide-angle-lens-brained comedy that might as well be based on a character from TV commercials. Is this now what passes for a statement of geek cool, a movie that's all attitude and zero humanity? I hated it even more than big-budget duds like that numbing pile of horror glitz, ''Van Helsing.''

LISA
What, you didn't care for hunky Hugh Jackman's heroic chapeau?

OWEN
Let's just say that the boy from Oz didn't look so comfortable in Transylvania.

LISA
Of course, this was also the summer when a few directors you'd never call wallflowers hit walls: Spike Lee bumped up against political and sexual incoherence with ''She Hate Me,'' M. Night Shyamalan banged his head on ''The Village,'' and as for your man Vincent Gallo. . .

OWEN
Actually, as you'll see if you flip a few more pages, I thought Gallo's ''The Brown Bunny'' fit right into your sad-summer theory. I'm really glad you liked ''Before Sunset,'' Lisa, because to me it's the kind of movie that restores one's faith. In spirit, I think it has a striking kinship with ''Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'': It's another celebration of true love as something deeply messy and imperfect, something that overturns your life when you least expect it.

LISA
Never mind celebrations of true love, I'm a sucker for any movie that knows how to get out of the way of good conversation.

OWEN
Amen. Let's hear it for the power of talk! The other life-size movie that really spoke to me this summer was ''Maria Full of Grace.'' This tale of a Colombian teenager who becomes a drug mule is delicate and harrowing, yet what I didn't expect -- what left me nearly shaking at the end -- is the way the director, Joshua Marston, revives the vision of America as a beacon of hope. At a time when we're facing such an uphill battle for credibility in the world, when the year's most important political film -- ''Fahrenheit 9/11'' --is willing to dice facts even as it berates George Bush for dicing facts, ''Maria Full of Grace'' was a galvanizing reminder of what coming to this country can still mean.

LISA
This is the point in our conversation when we ought to note the ongoing ascendance of documentaries -- er, nonfiction films. I'd say ''Maria'' is definitely influenced by the nonfiction form. Ditto the terrific true-life drama ''Stander,'' set in South Africa. Okay, here's a quiz: If you were going to watch just one summer-release docu again, which would it be? Me, I'd skip ''Control Room'' and go right to the happy surfers in ''Riding Giants.''

OWEN
''Control Room'' was about as fair and balanced as Sean Hannity's blood pressure. I think the doc I'd rush out to see again would be ''Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.'' It's just got so many scenes you want to savor, like Lars Ulrich auctioning his art collection.

LISA
Where do you stand on Jonathan Demme's gummed-up remake of ''The Manchurian Candidate,'' which for me was a squandered opportunity to take a sharp political stand at a moment when stands are desperately in need of taking? And did you really think ''Super Size Me'' was of ''A'' quality, rather than an easy A subject with which any B+ student (in possession of an iron gut) could have fun?

OWEN
Oh, absolutely! The film-making in ''Super Size Me'' was deliriously clever. There was a lot that intrigued me about ''The Manchurian Candidate'' (especially Liev Schreiber's zombie-good-fellow performance), but I guess I'm with you in feeling that the film's ultimate disappointment came down to a failure of nerve. Jonathan Demme seemed to think that he was mounting a fearless satirical attack on Halliburton, but evil corporations have been the villains in bad thrillers for 20 years. If it had been a truly audacious update of the original, he'd have shown the government secretly in league with al-Qaeda.

LISA
May I say, I'm rather pleased by our shared restraint in not listing ''Catwoman'' among the risibles (though I know you were gentler than I would have been)-- too easy a target.

OWEN
Halle Berry's strut and purr deserved a far better movie. My hope, however vain, is that for next summer, they get an amazing filmmaker of the kind we've been talking about to direct a sequel. I don't know about you, but I'd line up for Quentin Tarantino's ''Catwoman 2.''

Originally posted Sep 03, 2004 Published in issue #781 Sep 03, 2004 Order article reprints