Once upon a time, the summer movie season started on Memorial Day, a little more or a little less than a month away from the date heralding the official summer reckoning. Such a quaint idea because the blockbuster release schedule has steadily pushed its way into spring to the extent that today the box office designation for summer arrives during the midst of April’s showers.
One could argue that the retrenchment means a quicker escape from the winter doldrums that plague us after the Academy Awards presentation. Shorten the dead zone. Why not, right?
But I still miss the glorious highs of some of those summers past, like the thrill in 1991 of going to repeated screenings of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day pitting Arnold Schwarzenegger’s old school T-800 against the liquid metal marvel of a terminator to end all terminators (and would-be future saviors). The epic chase sequences, the assault on Cyberdyne Systems to retrieve the micro-processing chip that will lead to the creation of SkyNet and even the tender moments of genuine human interaction between robot (Schwarzenegger) and young John Connor (Eddie Furlong). Sweet summer dreams were made of this, the kind of dreams that last forever.
And what about something as simple as placing a bomb on a bus that is initially triggered when the bus reaches 50 mph but won’t detonate until deceleration drops below 50? Toss in Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock and you’ve got enough Speed to plaster butts in seats during the hot and sweaty season.
For a precursor to the shift toward earlier summer releases, a prime example would be The Matrix, which in 1999 debuted in late March, but had enough staying power to get a second wind during the summer heat and likely, for fans, is remembered fondly as a summer release.
So, what miracles have unfolded for us thus far in the pre-dawn of the summer of 2014?
April kicked things off with a real bang, thanks to the first of the Marvel outings — Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While I appreciate the idea that you should save the best for last, the sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger is not only a far superior film to its predecessor, Winter Soldier; for me, it is the strongest of the Marvel Studios releases thus far.
Despite not gaining the kind of traction at the box office exhibited by the Iron Man franchise or the superhero team-up The Avengers, this outing finds Chris Evans settling comfortably into the skin of both Steve Rogers, as a time-displaced veteran from the World War II era, and his alter-ego, the genetically engineered super soldier battling in the modern world of global espionage. It is that modern shadow warfare angle that grounds The Winter Soldier, casting the narrative as a smart combination of Bond-Bourne spy games with the super-heroics kept to a minimum.
Repulsor beams, thunder gods, rainbow bridges and a big green guy hulking out in his jeans would have been too much, too over-the-top, for this movie. There’s an intimacy here that fits the tone and prepares us for a summer that might not produce an earth-shattering, game-changing moment.
Then again, Gareth Evans did give us a second helping of The Raid. Subtitled Berandal, this movie, thanks to its international angle, has been handled like an independent film rather than the summer breakout it could have been. A June/July opening date in the multiplexes, with a well-timed promotional campaign, could have tapped into the hearts and minds of older teenage boys and adrenaline junkies of all ages.
As the surviving SWAT-team member from the doomed assault in the first installment, Rama (Iko Uwais) gets pulled out quickly and then dropped even further into the muck and mire, commissioned to go deep undercover to achieve a better position for an overall-takedown of the ruling crime syndicate.
The beat-downs are epic; it would be better to throw out “mythic” as the new superlative in this case, since “epic” is now becoming as mundane as “genius.” Whatever the case, The Raid 2 could have more than adequately replaced the delayed installment of The Fast & The Furious franchise as my not-so-guilty pleasure of the summer of 2014.
Instead, the real gems of the summer of 2014 have graced the art houses rather than the multiplexes. The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past have all been fairly solid performers at the box office, but what will we remember from them by the end of the season? Andrew Garfield’s web slinger is going to have his hands full next time; Godzilla will destroy some other coastal city; and there’s an apocalypse brewing on the mutant front, but that cataclysmic event still won’t be enough to straighten out all of the narrative knots in the X-Men franchise.
But we have seen more than our share of the unconventional. In Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer sent Scarlett Johansson out in a tricked-out van to pick-up unsuspecting men in the Scottish countryside and culled together a striking nightmare brimming with alien sensuality and surreal horror. The vampiric undead got a smart and captivating makeover in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive by downplaying the gore and souped-up power plays, and focusing on the lessons of long lives and what it takes to stoke an endless passion for life. Those of us in the know will retain the idea of Tilda Swinton as an eternal figure until we draw our last breaths, just as it should be.
As the rest of the summer unspools, I’m looking forward to the potential of a couple wild cards on both the multiplex and the independent fronts. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In) taking over after the departure of Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt, offers the promise of more complications in the escalating schism between humans — now being decimated by a fatal virus — and an exponentially evolving breed of apes, triggered by the research and genetic testing scheme in the reboot. The trailers tease us with urban devastation and intrigue among the two factions, with palpable tension and a solid cast featuring Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke and the ever-reliable Andy Serkis as Caesar, the motion-captured leader of the apes.
On the far more flamboyant end of the spectrum, there is Luc Besson’s latest project, Lucy, that finds the ever-present Scarlett Johansson playing a drug mule caught up in a dark, dirty deal gone horribly wrong: the drug package she’s carrying rips and releases an experimental drug into her bloodstream that expands mental capabilities to extreme degrees, bestowing her with what amounts to superhuman abilities.
More experienced moviegoers will likely see a connection between Lucy and Limitless, with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro going through similar mind-altering hijinks, but rest assured that Besson (Léon: The Professional, The Fifth Element) won’t play it safe; he doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Lucy will deliriously rush past the outer limits of taste and believability, and the presence of Johansson will guarantee that the ride will certainly be captivating.
Marvel Studios plans to take audiences to remote corners of the universe with James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. While The Avengers repelled an alien incursion of the planet Earth, Guardians leaves Earth far behind, tracking the adventures of a ragtag collection of outlaws, including a half-human pirate named Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), with delusions of grandeur; a green-skinned assassin (Zoe Saldana); a revenge-driven brute (Dave Bautista); a walking tree (voice and motion-captured by Vin Diesel); and a gun-slinging talking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) hell-bent on stealing a mysterious orb from an inter-galactic maniac (Lee Pace).
As a sometime reader of the comic back in the day, I’ve been imagining the live-action version as a millennial take on The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. What better way to reminisce than by updating the funky vibe of that forgotten classic?
Without a doubt, Marvel is banking on Guardians to, at the very least, maintain the mojo of their line, especially with a slate of two films a year mapped out through the next decade. But the big question for the summer of 2014 is whether or not any of these movies — or any others out there, for that matter — have what it takes to haunt our cinematic dreamscapes for years to come? ©
Midsummer in Munich
For an escape from the marvelous smash-ups and typical shenanigans, I’m dashing off to the Munich International Film Festival for a summer movie vacation. But rest assured, I will be hard at work, scouting the best productions in Cincinnati’s German Sister City:
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones): Having snagged an In Competition slot at the Cannes Film Festival, this effort from director and co-star Jones leapt off the Munich schedule. Jones (The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) is a no-nonsense craftsman, much like Clint Eastwood, although Jones only takes the helm for passion projects. And since this passion of his inspired Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, James Spader, John Lithgow and Hailee Steinfeld to sign on, why should I deny its sway?
Clouds of Sils Maria and A Thousand Times Good Night (Juliette Binoche): I’m always on the hunt for double features from performers of note — alright, I’ll say it, personal favorites of mine — on festival schedules and Munich offers two tantalizing options. First up, Juliette Binoche, who is currently gracing art-house screens in the genial indie rom-com Words and Pictures opposite Clive Owen. The odds are far better for at least one (if not both) of her Munich projects to showcase more of her talents. Clouds of Sils Maria, from lauded writer-director Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, another pairing with Binoche) and featuring next generation actresses Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz, is another main competition entry from Cannes rooted in an examination of film industry pressures on women, in particular the transition from starlet to aging veteran. A Thousand Times Good Night embeds audiences in the global hotspots with one of the top war photographers (Binoche) whose family — her husband is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau — attempts to force her to give up this dangerous profession.
Young Ones and The Harvest (Michael Shannon): If there were an industry dictionary, Michael Shannon’s picture and profile would perfectly encapsulate what it means to be a current late-bloomer. He lurked around the fringes of mainstream movies, (remember his racist stool pigeon in Bad Boys II, anyone?), but starting with William Friedkin’s Bug, people started taking notice of his intensity and wisely began challenging the notion that his distinct brand of dark complexity couldn’t command the frame. A Supporting Actor nomination for his work in Revolutionary Road probably didn’t hurt, either, but now everyone seems to want a piece of the action (from The Iceman to Man of Steel). (tt stern-enzi)