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B-Movies Extended: Summer 2011 Recap!

Bibbs and Witney take one last look at the movies that entertained and pissed us off this summer, from Fast Five to The Help.

With the coming of September, the summer movie season is officially over. On the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast (which was episode #31), we talked about a few action films that are coming out this month, and we – very briefly – called attention to the fact that they are fall releases, and, hence, don’t warrant the same kind of budgets or advertising campaigns as the films that come out from May, June and July. I know this is kind of a flimsy premise on which to base out B-Movies Extended article on, but it gives William and I a chance to talk about the summer movies we saw this year, and give a halcyon close to the glut of action that is the Hollywood Summer season, 2011.

The pattern has been in place as long as I can remember. The early part of the year was reserved for forgettable genre films that studios didn’t have any faith in, as they were still busy promoting the prestige pictures from the season before. Spring saw the release of a few high-budget action films, sometimes smaller ones, but, lately some huge ones have been creeping into the spring (one may say now that the summer movie season begins in April). By the summer, all of the big-budget genre action flicks are released into theaters, considered to be banking on the vacationing teenage dollar. The fall resembles January, in that smaller genre films are released with little fanfare. By late September, the prestige picture cycle in in full swing, and studios, assuming the Academy has a short memory, release all of their Oscar-worthy films.

This year’s summer has a few notable films, a few mediocre films, and a few stinkers, most all of them big-budget action films. As excited as I sometimes get for big-budget genre films, I like this calm-down period we’re currently in. It means that we can finally take a breath from all the ultra-action, and expect some films that might have a little more intelligence, or a slower pace. Well, presumably.
 


 

Some of this summer’s action highlights. In April: We saw the release of Fast Five and Hanna. The former was probably the most exciting and pure car chase B-movie of the year, gleefully embracing its silly conceits, and delivering on all the ‘splosions, crashes, and noisy engines that our little minds can stand. Unlike the strained bombast of the films of Michael Bay, Fast Five was genuinely awesome. By contrast, Hanna, directed by the usually mannered Joe Wright, was off the wall bizarre, featuring a wispy teenage Saoirse Ronan kicking bad guys in the throat, and straying into bizarro sci-fi territory by the film’s end. What’s more, the score, by The Chemical Brothers, was an electronic music box stuck in high gear. It was delightfully weird, and refreshingly bugnuts crazy.
 


 

This summer saw not one, but six superhero films. Good God. I was fond of the silly X-Men: First Class, and I appreciated the fresh-faced adventure of the equally silly Captain America: The First Avenger. Neither of these films could approach the freshness and skill of films like Spider-Man 2 or Iron Man, but they were enjoyable nonetheless. Thor was a mildly enjoyable film (and I know William will disagree with me on this point), but it didn’t really transcend much of anything. It was vague and colorful and full of action, but teetered closer to dated ‘80s action films like Krull than it did toward a solid superhero thriller. Green Lantern, a confusing superhero to begin with, got a big-budget film treatment, and the result was weird, vague, and poorly slapped together. If the big-budget mythologizing was too much for you, there were two quiet and contemplative superhero films as well, the brutal and tragic Super, and the quirky, twee Griff the Invisible.
 


 

One of the worst films of the year came out of the summer, and it was, predictably, from the clunky action superstar Michael Bay. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a witless 160-minute orgy of machines fighting machines, was simultaneously assaultive and dull. It’s strange how it made me feel both overwhelmed and bored. When people refer to dumb Hollywood action glut, they’re talking about films like this. I suppose the release of The Tree of Life was a cosmic balance of some sort.
 


 

And if we start the summer strong with Fast Five, we finished just as strong with the solid alien invasion cheapie Attack the Block, which is a horror/comedy that warrants comparison to cult classics like Shaun of the Dead and Dead Alive.  I also have to mention the section of Rise of the Planet of the Apes where silent chimps took part in the world’s strangest prison drama.  

And now that we’ve examined our drama through the filter of explosions, fights, monsters, and costumed vigilantes, we can finally calm down and wait wistfully for next year’s inevitable PG-13-rated cornucopia of genre ridiculousness. I say bring it on. We all need the summer to unwind and cheer and see some good action.

NEXT: Bibbs ponders the supposed demise of 3D and waxes rhapsodic about his own filmgoing adventures this summer…


FROM THE DESK OF WILLIAM ‘BIBBS’ BIBBIANI:

When the dust has settled and the deluge of “My Blockbuster Is Bigger Than Your Blockbuster” marketing has finally segued neatly into “My Oscar Contender Is Bigger Than Your Oscar Contender” marketing, we know that the Summer Movie Season has finally come to an end. My esteemed co-host Witney Seibold was right when he said that Summer, at least as far as movies are concerned, now starts in late April, keeps encroaching farther backwards into Spring. “Old Man Bibbs” here remembers a time when Summer began on Memorial Day Weekend, because that’s when all the schools had let out (except mine, which didn’t set me free until mid-June, the bastards). The conventional line of thinking was that these PG-13 tent pole releases would benefit from all the pre-adults running around free in the middle of the week, but with attendance down already – and ticket prices overcompensating to an annoying degree – I guess that doesn’t matter much anymore. Or maybe Hollywood has so little faith in society at large that they assume all those little 13-year-old Artful Dodgers are already playing hooky anyway. In fact, you could argue that the phrase “Summer Movie Season” doesn’t matter at all anymore, what with geek-flavored “big” movies like The Green Hornet and Sucker Punch coming out whichever damned month they please these days, whether or not they make any money.

And of course, Summer Movie Season 2011 will be remembered forever – I hope – as the time when movie patrons finally rose up against the tyranny of 3D. Not everyone hates 3D, and if I’m being honest with myself the glut of decent 3D presentations have tempered my own (ridiculously well-documented) annoyance with the gimmick, but certainly by now audiences have realized that it’s mostly a way to artificially inflate the already artificially-inflated ticket prices and trick you into seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides with a headache, and paying extra for the trouble. Maybe they had a tie-in deal with Tylenol, or maybe industry moguls just get off on our pain, which would also explain The Hangover: Part II (even without 3D) and Green Lantern. Either way, 3D attendance is finally down and maybe now studios will realize that after the initial bouts of constant, impassioned lovemaking our torrid affair with the gimmick has now settled into a quiet “date night” mentality, in which the sexy metaphoric lingerie is saved for special occasions in which we were going to see the movie anyway, like with Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
 


 

Summer Movie Season 2011 got off to an unusually good start this year on the last week of April, when the deservedly lauded Fast Five came out. Miraculously the fifth film in the series is probably better than the first (at least when you factor in demerits for the first film ripping off Point Break at gunpoint). The producers finally realized that their unusually successful franchise didn’t rely so much on car “races” as it did on car “chases,” and ultimately made an equally thrilling and amusing ensemble heist picture reuniting the casts of all the previous films. It was also the first blockbuster action film in a quite a while where you could actually tell what the hell was going on all the time, which put director Justin Lin on the top of every studio’s “Must Hire” list. Also opening that weekend was the superb family film That’s What I Am, but apparently what I am is the only person to have seen the damned thing. The funny, smart and touching grade school drama deserved a bigger audience and remains one of my favorite films of the year.
 


 

What followed was Thor, which Witney somewhat liked and I genuinely loved, partially because it was a (reasonably) faithful and clean adaptation of one of my favorite comic book characters, and partially because it plays like the old Dolph Lundgren “classic” Masters of the Universe, but with a better cast, budget and storyline. I just rewatched it on Blu-Ray and it holds up perfectly well on repeated viewings. Smart indies like the emotionally-charged Hesher and The Beaver, the latter of which I think would have been really popular were it not for the (fairly justified) Mel Gibson vitriol, kept the momentum going strong until the successful but lazy, stupid and annoying The Hangover: Part II came out, reminding everyone that it’s the summer, damn it, and some of these movies have to suck. Terrence Malick's brilliant The Tree of Life then dared to challenge our hearts, minds and tolerance for art movies, for those not inclined to like that sort of thing. Also somewhere around there, the eye-gouging 3D of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides failed to hide the fact that the franchise is now just spinning its wheels. Another sequel is planned, but I’m not sure anyone’s going to be excited about it next time. I suspect the opening weekend numbers for Pirates of the Caribbean: Jack Sparrow Goes to Space will be way down after that disappointment.
 


 

In June, J.J. Abrams released his loving Spielberg homage Super 8, which was good enough, I suppose. Younger audiences probably got more out of that lens flare-powered nostalgia fest than the adults, who actually remember when kids films that didn’t have to force childlike wonder in with a crowbar. Shortly afterwards, one of my most anticipated movies of the year floundered thanks to a confused structure and unimmersive CGI environments. Green Lantern only kind of sucked, but even that was enough to make it the season’s biggest disappointment. June's other superhero movie, X-Men: First Class, trumped it on all fronts thanks to a nifty period setting, a deft story and an exciting cast. Cars 2 wasn't quite a disappointment, because despite the “Pixar” brand on the posters nobody expected much from the sequel to their worst film ever. Cars 2 was actually a lot of fun, but at the expense of the quality storytelling that makes the “Pixar” name actually mean something. Elsewhere in June, the Mexican drama Leap Year blew my mind with its elegant, enigmatic story and disturbing sexual themes. As for Transformers: Dark of the Moon, well, I still kind of like it, although all the complaints Witney and everybody else lob in its direction are entirely fair. The last hour, at least, finally gave us the all-out alien robot war we always wanted, as opposed to the occasional, confusing skirmishes of the first two, even worse movies in the series.
 


 

July came around and things picked up a bit with John Carpenter’s return to form, The Ward, another movie hardly anyone saw but was a nicely spooky, old-fashioned thriller that only fell apart with the clichéd, predictable ending. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 relied more on action than many of us would have liked, but after seven damned movies in the franchise our affection for the characters had already been established, so they could have ended the series in a fan dancing contest and we’d probably still have cheered. Captain America: The First Avenger was a joyous period romp throughout a superhero-flavored World War II, and managed to respect the character and the era without sacrificing the fun. Meanwhile, Cowboys and Aliens was a snoozefest despite the kooky concept, and indies like Good Neighbours stunk up the place while indies like The Guard and The Devil’s Double (the latter of which wasn’t that indie, in all fairness) started the Oscar race with some laudable performances from Brendan Gleeson and Dominic Cooper, respectively.
 


 

August is usually considered the September of the Summer Movie Season, because it’s where studios tend to dump lesser genre entertainments that they didn’t think could stand up to the bigger blockbusters. Most of them fell victim to the life affirming, nicely acted but slightly racist charms of the breakaway box office success The Help, which is now officially one of the biggest Oscar contenders of the year. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes managed to be an only mildly campy success, thanks to a superior motion-captured performance by Andy Serkis and a script that was better than it had any right to be. Despite a couple of highlights, the indie frightfest Grave Encounters being one of them, the last month of the Summer also brought forth such forgettable flicks as Conan the Barbarian, Bellflower and 5 Days of War, of which only Bellflower earned my absolute hatred even though some people seemed to think it was the second coming of Gus Van Sant. It would be nice to think that August ended on a high note with such delightfully inventive films as Bunraku, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil all coming out last weekend, but two of those were Video on Demand releases, which may be an increasingly feasible economic model but does prevent them from ever achieving blockbuster status. Le sigh…

And that, in a nutshell, was Summer Movie Season 2011. It started off great but quickly turned into just another hit-or-miss 1/4 of the year that just happened to have more explosions than the rest. In the end I think Fast Five, Thor, That’s What I Am, HesherTree of LifeX-Men: First Class, Leap YearCaptain America: The First Avenger and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil are likely to stick with me and warrant multiple viewings, which is actually a pretty large number of memorable films, but I guess there was probably something for everyone… especially if you like movies that suck.

 

WHAT DID YOU THINK OF SUMMER MOVIE SEASON 2011…?