R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Mid-Summer Report Card

So the July 4th weekend is now past, which means the summer is half over and because I’m a lazy craphead, this week’s column is a midsummer report card for a bunch of the big releases. Now, before I get started, I’ll go ahead and say that I did miss a lot of the
Comedies released this summer, including some that I actually wanted to see, like Get Smart and Kung Fu Panda. I also missed a bunch of the stuff I knew would be crap, such as The Happening and The Love Guru, and Don‘t Mess with Zohan.

What I have done though, is gotten to see pretty much all of the big Action movies of the summer (no surprise), one smaller picture and the summer’s lone Horror movie. While the box office numbers may not show it, Movie Summer 2008 is completely blowing away last year’s crop in terms of quality. Instead of disappointing week in and week out with the occasional smash, 2008’s popcorn bounty has proven to be incredibly resilient, surprising me every so often with a movie that was way better than I expected.

So here we go…

Rob’s Mid-Summer Report Card

Iron Man
It’s important to be able to kick off the summer in the right way. Failing to do so can really leave a bad taste in your mouth for the rest of the season (Spider-Man 3) or it can propel you into huge wave of momentum going into the big Memorial Day holiday (Spider-Man). For Marvel, Iron Man managed to not only kick off the summer like it should, but was able to make up for the company’s own 2007 missteps of Ghost Rider, SM3 and the second and hopefully last Fantastic Four movie. Now they’re looking at not only a potential franchise, but also the possibility of a set up for an Avengers movie.
As for Iron Man itself, pound for pound its as strong as any first outings of any of their superheroes on screen. Robert Downey, Jr. does phenomenal work as Tony Stark, billionaire industrialists who grows a conscience and decides to help the world by turning himself into a superhero and fighting evil. Really, enough can’t be said about Downey’s performance. His witty comic timing has crafted a hero that we really care about on top of everything else, making us not just sit there anticipating the next big action scene. Jon Favreau’s direction may be a little conservative for a huge blockbuster, but its sold enough to get the job done, and the character work done in tandem with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges is right on the mark. Now if the sequel would open things up with some knock down, drag out action then we’ve got a true masterpiece on our hands.

Grade: A-

Speed Racer
Like anime? Better yet, do you like your anime visually to be absolutely bugnuts crazy? Want to see a live action version of that? Then you should have seen Speed Racer, because the 12 of us that did go see it thought it was a really good time. This was cotton candy entertainment at its most viscerally sweet, with car chases, kung fu fights and cornea melting visuals galore. Does it break your heart and get you completely emotionally involved with what’s going on? Maybe not, but there’s enough heart to get you through the movie, and I’ve got to hand it to the Wachowskis for putting out a movie that gave me exactly what I was looking for in a Speed Racer adaptation. I can’t say for sure why people stayed away from this, but it makes me wonder if promotional departments should stop selling their movies “From the Creators of The Matrix Trilogy“, because apparently those sequels still aren’t doing them any favors.

Grade: B

The Fall
Tarsem’s follow-up to The Cell is as visually arresting as its predecessor, but the story has many of the same problems connecting with its audience emotionally . Make no mistake, this movie is absolutely gorgeous, and not only that, I loved how many of the movie’s visual effects were kind of simple ideas that seemed to be pulled off without the help of CGI. Many sequences reminded me of Cult classics like El Topo or Holy Mountain, but with a story that was both more accessible and less enchanting. Made for $10 Million, you can tell that Tarsem filmed the movie while on shoots for commercials because the plot here is very patchwork and much more distant than the director intended.

Grade: C+

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

I’m sure I’ve spent enough time in this column lately proclaiming my love for this movie and you’ll get no change of heart here. Suffice it to say that if you haven’t seen this movie because you’re worried about Harrison Ford being too old, then don’t worry. Ford is awesome here and Spielberg and Lucas bring just enough magic back to be worth your time to see this again. I love how this movie feels like the series never stopped and this is actually the 7th Indiana Jones movie instead of the fourth one, with characters coming and going like we’ve known them the whole time, much like Raiders of the Lost Ark did with Sullah and Marcus Brody. There’s an Indiana Jones movie out in theaters right now that I could go see any night of the week, and that’s a comforting thought.

Grade: A

The Strangers
As a big fan of Halloween, I was glad to see a Horror film that was more about thrilling you than it was about grossing you out. There’s actually very little gross out violence in this movie, which is good because while I can watch and sort of enjoy the Saw and Hostel films for what they are, I much prefer something closer to John Carpenter’s stylings on his Slasher classic. On that level this movie is terrific, with its masked killers moving about giving you primal scares as they come in and out of shadow. On the other hand, the movie nearly fails for me because Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman’s protagonists seem to become absolutely brain-dead as soon as everything really gets going. The movie has style to burn, but in the end it made me so angry that I would nearly not recommend it. Nearly.

Grade: B-

The Incredible Hulk
Here’s the deal. I didn’t love, but kind of like Ang Lee’s original Hulk film. I liked a lot of the character work done in the movie and I adore his comic book paneling visuals. I even like how bizarre the movie is. On the other hand, I can completely understand fans that hate it. The movie is definitely not for everyone, and for those fans that only wanted to watch Hulk smash things, The Incredible Hulk was made for you. Thing is, this one really doesn’t have more action scenes, the movie is just shorter so it feels like it has more action. The movie also keeps the story as simple as possible, kind of like an episode of the TV show, only with a much bigger budget.
What you’re there to see though, is Hulk fight stuff, and for the most part, the movie is pretty successful. The movie has three major action scenes, the last being an almost twenty minute showdown with the Abomination. When the movie isn’t in the middle of fighting though, is it all that good? Well, yes, but not spectacularly so. Where Iron Man seemed to go out of its way to make you care about these characters when there wasn’t any action onscreen, Director Louis Letterier isn’t as interested in the same level of storytelling. This movie is about fighting and little else, but that’s pretty much what fans asked for.

Grade: B-

Want to see a movie made with unapologetic reckless abandon? Then Wanted is the movie for you. From top to bottom Wanted goes out of its way to entertain you, and does so with a grin and a middle finger. Maybe you’re thinking that I’m praising Wanted in the same way I’m damning The Incredible Hulk, but to be honest, Hulk just isn’t as much fun. Wanted soars with scene after scene of ridiculous craftsmanship where Incredible Hulk feels like its saving it for the big finish. For straight up fun, I don’t think you can do better this summer than Wanted.

Grade: B+

If you’ve waited and waited for a real masterpiece this summer, then look no further. WALL·E not only represents the best film of 2008 so far, but also represents the best work ever put out by the most consistently awesome studio going today, and that is saying something considering just how much I love The Incredibles. WALL·E is cinema on its highest level, not even needing dialogue in its first half hour to get across its story of human waste run amuck. The movie stuns with its gorgeous visuals and heartfelt love story. It makes me wonder why so many other film makers can’t touch us on this human level nearly every time out the way that Pixar does. I don’t want to say too much more because I want you guys to go out and take it in fresh for yourselves. But to Pixar; bravo guys. Bravo.

Grade: A+

I’ll admit to kind of liking Hancock. There’s a moment in the movie where Director Peter Berg really catches you emotionally in montage, and it’s a kind of trick he’s used successfully before in Friday Night Lights and The Kingdom, and it ends up working here. I just wish that it worked so well for the rest of the movie. Sure, the movie is brash and fun at times, I just wish it had more of that human quality. On the other hand, the movie’s visual style is wild and there’s a giant action scene that is one of the biggest I’ve ever seen, although it does feel kind of short. It’s not as convincing as some of the smaller ones I’d seen in other movies, but it just let’s loose with Hancock fighting a villain through buildings and knocking around trucks, and I like how big it feels.
Also, Will Smith does some really good work and you can see why he’s so popular, I just wish he would pick projects where he has to come up so far to make the film a worthy effort. I wonder just how much they had to cut out of this one to make it passable to the MPAA, and how much that may have hurt the film overall. Still, this one gets a mild recommendation, especially for people that just wanted to watch Superman punching stuff in Superman Returns instead of really dealing with building up character and making a wonderful story.

Grade: B-

Well, there you have it. The summer is half over and on the Action front so far we’re at a solid B to B+ average, which if you ask me is a winner so far. With Hellboy II and The Dark Knight still to come, we’ve still got some doozies headed our way. Hopefully Brendan Frasier and Vin Diesel don’t throw the whole thing down the tubes.

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