So, in the wake of Transformers revenging the fallen all over our minds, we were in need of cooling down from the sheer anger and exhaustion felt in the studio. Though Sunshine Cleaning should have been a great example of an indie to bring us back onto home turf, it ended up an underwhelming experience. The eminently crushworthy pairing of Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, along with the solid Alan Arkin and roles for Steve Zahn and Clifton Collins Jr, just couldn’t quite drive us into anything beyond a tepid lack of satisfaction. Ideas involved were strong, but the execution was half-hearted, even if all of the above tried really hard to elevate the material.
The summer didn’t quite kick into gear again the following week with Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s take on the Dillinger mythos with Johnny Depp seducing cameras, audiences and characters so much that we end up struggling to find much beyond his sculpted cheekbones and Chicago-drawled angst. Mann still delivers his superb take on violence, though many felt the gun battles were confusing and muddled, but fails almost embarrassingly to get beneath the skin of Dillinger, instead providing a tick-tack rundown of the events of his life. Like Sunshine Cleaning, the film is elevated and made enjoyable by some really good performances, notably from Marion Cotillard as the moll and from Jason Clarke as a key confidant. It just never manages to rise above the kind of myth-making that seems beneath Mann’s skill.
If Depp’s performance dominates unnecessarily, Sasha Baron Cohen’s eats his own film alive. Bruno arrived on a predictable wave of controversy and delivered misguided, disjointed, at times fall down funny cringe comedy. Those who failed to fall for the charms of Borat, like us, would have had similarly hollow experience with this film, which just has little to say beyond the heightened gay jokes and attempts to catch bad people in the act through directing and editing which feels dishonest and frustrating. The fact, for me, remains, Baron Cohen will never match the perfectly-judged socially-inspired comedy of Ali G. He ruined that with the film too, just as he did with Borat. Bruno was never precious enough to ruin, but he really needs to try something else. I don’t recall where the quote was from, but it sums it perfectly. Baron Cohen is a genius, I’m just not sure what at.
It was very much back into blockbuster fare the week after, we threw ourselves head first into Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Given it’s the sixth film in the series, this was a highly impressive and confident effort. The instalment of David Slade as the director to see out the final films is inspired, he seems to have a great handle on judging the relationships between the characters and balancing that with those infamous ‘dark’ moments. As much as anything though, this was the most outsider blockbuster effort of the lot. A two-and-a-half hour film which is more concerned with the relationships between the characters than delivering massive SFX-driven entertainment. The kind of sexual frisson between the kids seems to perfectly fit the age of the characters involved. These teenagers are far more concerned with talking about boys or girls, developing romantic relationships with each other, than with attempting to save the world. However you feel about the series, there surely can be no denial that the films are getting better every time around.
If the blockbuster season was seeking to get back on track, we were only interested in fleeing to the arthouse and indulging in the UK’s decision to release an uncut version of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, the scourge of Cannes this year. Scourge it may have been, but this was among the most boring experiences we had over the course of the summer months. This is a film which includes a scene of female genital mutilation, of a blunt attack on a penis and subsequent bloody handjob, full penetration within three minutes. How a film like this could become so boring is one to puzzle over, but the primary reason appears to be the tipping point reached by von Trier to prevent himself from making a film for his audience at all, instead making something to exercise his own demons. Charlotte Gainsbourg gives an incredible performance, but her character appears driven by misogyny, or at least self-flagellation, and everything becomes unsettling and disturbing in all the wrong ways.
Antichrist may have driven us to annoyance, but it did kick off a trend for more interesting summer fare to gain our attention. Top of the bunch was Moon, Duncan Jones’ 70s-inspired sci-fi film which wholly and completely indulged our collective love for Sam Rockwell through making it a one man show. There are problems with the film, but the spirit of everything that’s happening places the film in the tradition of those 1970s classics – 2001 and Silent Running in particular – and drives such a huge amount of enjoyment. For a film ostensibly questioning the meaning of existence, this is as much fun as I had in a cinema over the entire summer.
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, which came after we took a week off, was no return to form. Though we had much more fun watching this than any of the other three bloated, self-important action blockbusters of the season, this was a big, bad movie. Stephen Somers overloads on the CGI once more, seemingly unable to objectively watch his body of work and take on constructive criticism, while his cast is varied between those taking it way too seriously, those having a really good time and a Wayans brother. Channing Tatum appears to have wrongly stepped off of the Stop Loss set and wondered into frame here, but Dennis Quaid hams like crazy, Joseph Gordon Levitt is almost laughing through most of his essay of Cobra Commander and Sienna Miller, who I am no fan of, both fills out a one-piece catsuit very well and has a really good time as the villainess. The writing is horrible, the action is okay, the entire thing is a disaster. But that lack of seriousness means, for us, GI Joe tops the list of shit blockbusters ahead of Terminator Salvation, Transformers 2 and Wolverine.
The next week gave us the most divisive moment of the summer, though only after the show was it that the division has begun. On reaction, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds left me very cold, much like the much-worse Death Proof, but, given the incredible reaction, this is one to see again ASAP. Everytime I consider what I saw, I keep looking back on everything through a different lens, much as has happened with Jackie Brown in the past decade and a bit, where the film has shifted away from his place as minor Tarantino in my eyes to a film I absolutely love. Perhaps I should avoid further criticism of the work before I’ve had a chance to rewatch, but the first impressions were of a man with no edit switch, sacrificing focus and cohesion in favour of indulging in his own characters and writing. Judgement reserved for the time being. Though, it should be said, perhaps the performance of the year by Christoph Waltz at Hans Lander, among, if not the best, character even written by QT.
We’ll close everything out with the last three weeks, where the summer is supposed to turn to autumn, but has failed to make such a move as yet. We were treated to, for me, the best week of the year since the beginning salvo of Milk, The Wrestler and Rachel Getting Married, as we had The Hurt Locker and Funny People. The first has been beloved and deservedly so, it’s maybe the most perfect representation of the soldier mentality and rarely, if ever, resorts to any kind of preaching in the way of other so-called Iraq movies like In the Valley of Elah or Stop Loss. Jeremy Renner gives what should be a starmaking turn and, in addition, should secure him an Oscar nomination at the end of the year (hopefully alongside Tom Hardy in Bronson). Funny People, though some distance from perfect, caused me to drop all critical faculties and fall in love with Judd Apatow’s most personal, most moving project thus far. The film itself is extremely funny, but also has much to say about men and comedians. If The Hurt Locker captures the mentality of soldiers, the dick jokes and introspection on show in Funny People captures so much about the comedian’s psychology.
Closing out our blockbuster days is the astonishing District 9, Neill Blomkamp’s much-praised sci-fi apartheid allegory with no stars and made for only $30m. The film is brilliant, if more for its commitment to something beyond pure, brainless entertainment than actual execution, but it remains a shining beacon of hope that Hollywood executives will either ignore or will not see. The film isn’t perfect, it jars somewhat in terms of the switches between the documentary style and handheld documentary footage and the writing is clunky, but it’s an auspicious debut which is filled with promise and one that should see Blomkamp elevated to being one of the top players on the action movie scene within a few years.
The summer closes out aptly with Adventureland and (500) Days of Summer, two films which seem concerned very much with time passing and the loss of certain periods of a life. Adventureland may be a misty-eyed remembrance of youth, but it captures a moment in which a person grows up and begins to understand themselves in a way well beyond what you can grasp during the early part of teenage years. (500) Days of Summer too explores a character who has his perception of love and relationships shattered by finding that the manic pixie dream girl he has been waiting for is, indeed, only a dream. Neither are wholly successful in their aims, but there is something about the mistakes which they make, akin to the likes of Moon or District 9, to a lesser extent Funny People, which makes those imperfections a charm. The better films over the summer months have been characterised by a kind of spirit of heart and effort, where the filmmakers have something to say about the human condition and do so in ways which, while sometimes not technically perfect, are able to encapsulate their intended meaning through the negatives. We’ve been treated to an up-and-down summer in which even the larger, crapper films were so committed to their cause, however hollow and useless, that talking points abounded. Here’s to an Oscar season in which we have as much to talk about as we have over the summer.