Summer Movie Diaries

This February, Film School Rejects turned a gloriously unruly 8 years old. Which means for me that, including the time spent blogging elsewhere prior to starting FSR, I have been blogging the world of cinema for almost a decade. It’s the longest relationship I’ve ever had. And as the years go by and the grey hairs continue to sprout, I continue to learn new things about my own taste. In film, in companions, in life experiences. It has all changed not always drastically with time.

I’ve also experienced changes in behavior. In the beginning, I got into this business for the free movies (there is no such thing as the much mythicized “movie blogger groupie,” so movies it is). But as my work with the site has evolved, especially in recent years, I’ve found myself missing out on all the movie-related fun. It’s not about seeing movies. It’s about spreadsheets, advertisers, more spreadsheets and finding creative ways to make sure we find the best writers on the web and pay them somewhat appropriately. There are other distractions. Living in the New Golden Age of Television certainly isn’t helping solidify my commitment to seeing many movies. Between catching up on great shows like Orphan Black and Fargo and reading, watching, blogging and podcasting about all things Game of Thrones, television is a relentless distraction.

It’s about time that I issue cinema an apology: I’m sorry, movies, I’ve been neglecting you lately. I feel like that guy, we all know him, who sees two movies a year and declares Tammy the funniest movie of the year. It’s a sad state of affairs. In an effort to rectify this, I’m heading out to the movies in force for the rest of summer in the hope that I’ll re-ignite that flame. Soggy popcorn and overpriced drinks, here I come. I’m even looking forward to spending time with you, lady who won’t stop reacting out loud to poorly telegraphed dramatic beats. It’s a journey long overdue in my 2014: the quest to see a lot of great movies. And if you’re interested, I’d like to take you along for the ride in this, a new feature I call The Summer Movie Diaries. We begin this week with the biggest, loudest and boldest of summer thus far: a spiritual summer flick, a massive mutant sequel and that perennial powerhouse of boom: Michael Bay.

The Rise of A 70-Inch Empire

Those who follow me on Twitter or Instagram know more about me than most, but not as much as they think. Between the food porn and the debt-ballooning runs to the Mondo Gallery, these social media streams also reveal a bit about my story. One major life event that kicked off my summer: I moved into a very nice new home. And after a week of torturous box-lifting, I learned that having a DVD collection that impresses my friends is one thing, carrying it down three flights of stairs is another. All said and done, the move nearly eliminated my ability to stand. But thanks to your prayers, I made it only to find out that my current television was far too small for the much larger living room in the new Reject HQ. It was time to dust off my Best Buy card and go buy something more commensurate with my new suburbanite movie nerd status. Enter the 70-inches of high-speed scanning, LED-bulbing brilliance that is my new television. As I explained to the sweaty young man in a blue polo who assisted me in sliding this beast into the back of Movies.com editor Peter Hall’s SUV, “this is a big moment for me, as a man.”

70 Inches: Big, Even at a Distance

70 Inches: Big, Even at a Distance

There’s something different about the way a movie person sets up a new large-format television. They have a variant, but equally passionate purpose than someone who buys it just to watch sports. There’s the delicate matter of configuring the TV (as it turns out, there’s an app for that) and getting all of our streaming services setup on whatever new box we’ve decided to attach. For me, it was learning how to communicate verbally with an X-Box One.

Fast forward to day two (seriously Microsoft, that X-Box One voice control could use some work) and I began the far more important task of selecting which movies to watch first. The candidates list included a number of classics and modern marvels that would put the screen real estate and upgraded sound system to the test: the Blu-ray releases of Jurassic Park, Alien, Gravity, any Pixar film or just about any Marvel production all made the list of finalists. In the end, I settled on a trip to Jurassic Park, a bone-crunching stint with The Raid, and The Avengers (including the last 30 minutes watched twice) to get the new setup warmed up. It was a blissful afternoon of configuration and overindulgence.

Upon getting things working, tested and catching up on season two of Orange is the New Black (an acceptable relapse), it was time to get back to the real quest: catching up on new movies. A quick scour of the selection of new movies on my Apple TV revealed a quick and easy way to get myself into the summer movies mood, a trip back to the blood-splattered alternate universe of Ancient Greece with 300: Rise of an Empire. It’s the stunted offspring of Zack Snyder’s 300, a movie I legendarily (and perhaps clouded by bloodlust) absolutely loved when it hit theaters in 2007. 300 was significant in my professional life, as it was the source of my first big interview. That chat with Zack Snyder (http://filmschoolrejects.com/features/interview-director-zach-snyder-talks-300.php), performed in the break room of my day job, was the first time our little site had been recognized enough to get a crack at the director of a major film. It was brutal then and probably reads like the work of an imbecile 7-years later and while it feels like a lifetime ago, it stands out as one of those interesting mile markers along our journey as a site.

Seven years gone, 300: Rise of an Empire completes the circle across the resolution-dense face of my new screen. And like many sequels we see these days, it’s a lot of the same only bigger and louder. Following the tangential (but simultaneous to Leonidas and his 300) story of Greek general Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), this Noam Murro-directed, Frank Miller-shepherded bloodbath takes us to the seas for a 100-minute naval battle between an ab-ripply Greek and the sinister Artemisia (Eva Green), a Greek woman spurned into legendary Persian warriorship. Similar to the first time around (but considerably darker in palette), Rise of an Empire continues the tradition of abs and stabs, complete with much more CGI-generated blood splatter. Kudos are owed to Noam Murro, whose most significant work prior to this was the Sundance darling comedy Smart People, for trying to inject a few character moments in between battle sequences. Sadly it all falls a bit flat thanks to the homogenized Greek cast. It’s surprisingly hard to track which secondary characters we should be caring about, especially in battle sequences. So when they begin to die horribly, we’re not too invested.

We do, however, get some growling good times with Eva Green, whose murderous Artemisia is far more fun than Rodrigo Santoro’s Xerxes is in either this or the previous film. She’s got a nasty streak that involves all the staples of the 300 franchise: blood, sex and shouting. The production design from Underworld alum Patrick Tatopoulos is impressive, as is the score from Junkie XL. It’s a well-built world that involves a wonderfully violent story. Exactly what we’d expect in a more-of-the-same type of sequel scenario. Yet aside from being slightly bloodier, more vastly scoped and a bit louder, Rise of an Empire doesn’t offer us anything new. Perhaps that’s good enough in a franchise that paid off its greatest ambitions with the CGI glory of the first film. Maybe audiences are content with starting their spiritual summer movie season in March or April with movies like this. Impressive enough with it’s bloodshed, but washes away clean shortly afterward.

Late Nights of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past

20th Century Fox

Tuning up a new home theater system and enjoying movies on the couch is one sort of joy, but the true summer movie experience really does happen in a dark, air-conditioned theater. So with dead Greeks littering my living room, I took off for a late night screening of something else that was new. Arriving at a theater around 10pm, I did something I haven’t done in a long time, something that seems increasingly rare in an era when movie tickets can be purchased from your iPhone and movie theaters have reserved seating decided long before the showtime: I walked up to a box office and bought a ticket for whatever was playing next. Lucky for me, I was ten minutes early for the last showing of X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s been in theaters for a few weeks and even though I’ve been neglecting seeing movies, I certainly haven’t missed much of the news cycle. I know what my peers around the industry have been saying about this one. And while plenty of people like to discredit the idea that critics matter, I still trust many of these voices to guide me when I’ve fallen behind.

92% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and already plenty successful at the box office ($725 million worldwide is no joke), Days of Future Past is made even more interesting by the fact that it’s a merging of what feels like two very different X-Men franchises: Bryan Singer/Brett Ratner’s original X-Men trilogy and the excellent X-Men: First Class from Matthew Vaughn. Sure, Singer has been involved in all of these films, but First Class felt like a welcomed departure from the original trilogy. One of the few really good reboots in the Reboot Era. To see Singer take back over the franchise and bring the two sides together with a time-bending story on a massive scale was going to be interesting no matter what.

As with much of Singer’s filmography, the intrigue of the idea ultimately overshadows the execution. Set in both the distant future and the 1970s, we get the story of a great war between mutants and the human race. More specifically, it’s the war between the Sentinels (a fear-driven creation of war monger Bolivar Trask played by Peter Dinklage) and mutants. In the future, the war is about lost when Professor X (Patrick Stewart) sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to the body of his 1970s self in an attempt to stop a series of events that lead to the creation of the unstoppable Sentinel army.

From there, the movie reveals itself to be the Hugh Jackman and Jennifer Lawrence show, with Wolverine and Mystique anchoring a story that weaves through murder plots, the Nixon administration and patching up the relationship between young Xavier (James McAvoy) and young Magneto (Michael Fassbender). It’s got some great moments, including a prison breakout scene that involves the speedy Quicksilver (Evan Peters). He might look silly in that costume, but in motion Quicksilver is a fun character to spend time with. But as with many interesting elements in Days of Future Past, he’s only part of the movie for a single sequence. In their desire to smash these two casts together, Singer and Co. have made the most dense series entry yet. And while that has the benefit of getting all the gangs back together, it also leaves the entirety of the film feeling somewhat rushed. The rush of action and frantic pace peels away the impact of the film’s otherwise heady existential, personal story that revolves around the trio of Xavier, Magneto and Mystique (nee Raven).

How this movie will be remembered in the larger context of Fox’s massive X-Men library is yet to be decided. It could be ultimately viewed as the movie that tried to retroactively create a new continuity in often awkward ways. It might be seen as the massive unification of all that is good about two uniquely crafted X-Men gangs. On the ground level, it’s an entertaining and vibrant movie that adds scale and monstrous stakes to the intelligent design of First Class. It doesn’t have all the same flash of Matthew Vaughn’s reboot, but it also does a fine job of unburdening itself of the problems of Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand with some time-travel retconomics. The hope is that the fusion continues and the smarts overpower the desire to just go bigger as the X-Men franchise marches toward its next phase: the confusingly teased post-credits beginning of the Apocalypse.

Age of Explosion

Michael Bay directing Transformers 4

Paramount Pictures

Over the course of the Transformers franchise, it’s become clear that Michael Bay and I are no longer on the same page as to what makes a really good action movie. This notion was reinforced this week when I followed an afternoon showing of Transformers: Age of Extinction with an evening viewing of The Rock at home. There are some clear parallels between Michael Bay of the mid-1990s and Michael Bay of today. There’s plenty of wooden exposition, whirling camera movements and above all, plenty of well-timed exploding sequences. But there was always something raw and, dare I say it, character-driven about Michael Bay’s work alongside producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He built sexy worlds and blew them up, but inside them he also placed fantastic casts and allowed them to play around in his sandbox. In the case of The Rock, he had the vintage wine version of Sean Connery as the reluctant political prisoner secretly notorious for breaking out of Alcatraz. He had a pre-insanity, but still pretty crazy Nicolas Cage as a nerd-out-of-lab-coat hero. And he had the righteous fury that can only be expressed so perfectly in the stern looks of someone like Ed Harris. That’s just to name a few, but the point is made. Explosions were secondary attractions, which made them a lot of fun. The real fireworks happened in those moments of painfully scripted, but wonderfully delivered exposition. Mid-90s Michael Bay made movies with plenty of shrouded misogyny, bad dialogue and excess, just as he does today. But he was far more fun.

Today’s Michael Bay lives in a much different world. One where the details of your story matter, where action must drive your story and one where the sandbox might be bigger, but it requires a more delicate hand. Audiences have spent the better part of the past two decades being pummeled by CGI and 3D. Every summer action movie has aspired to be bigger, louder and grittier than its predecessor. It’s an environment that has given pushed even excellent, thoughtful blockbuster directors to deliver the great (see The Dark Knight) with the flatulent (see The Dark Knight Rises). It’s no surprise that the end of summer every year is punctuated with countless lists on sites such as this about all the anti-blockbusters you should have been watching instead of the latest Transformers movie.

Which brings us to the latest Transformers movie. It’s a headache if there ever was one, even for someone like me who really enjoyed the first time he saw a truck transform into a robot. That first time Shia LaBeouf stood and gawked as Optimus Prime emerged from that patriotically-styled Lorry, I looked on, rapt. But four movies in and the exhaustion has set in. With Age of Extinction, Bay and Co. have delivered their best cast of the franchise. Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Titus Welliver, Li Bingbing (and the voices of Peter Cullen, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe and Frank Welker) are all talented players, wasted and washed over by the sounds of metal colliding. Where most movies have a beginning, middle and an end, Age of Extinction has a beginning, then AHHHHH! for another two hours or so. Sure, it’s bigger and brighter than the previous installments. And it’s clear that the Industrial Light & Magic still enjoy playing in this sandbox. Their work should never be overlooked. But in the absence of anything resembling subtlety or innocence, an adult-themed Transformers movie seemingly written by a thirteen-year old boy and directed by his walking erection is nothing but a booming pile of rubble.

I miss the old Michael Bay. I miss the guy who made the cool action movies of my pubescent years. The guy arrogant enough to think he could make a cool movie out of a line of toys from the 80s. Perhaps Jerry Bruckheimer will find him someday and bring him back to the director’s chair. Until then, I’m certainly not the only one who has grown tired of this Michael Bay and his desire to just make things louder and longer. We got a glimpse of him last year with Pain & Gain, only to see him recede back into this grotesque state of excess. Time to hand the Transformers toys over to one of those talented filmmakers who grew up in the 80s, many of whom are being swallowed up by the Star Wars locomotive. Let someone else take this rebooted but not-refreshed Transformers sandbox and play. There’s nothing left to be gained by making more of these for Bay, whose best days were filled with diversity and bravado. Even if it leads to another critical mess like The Island, it has to be better than this.

The Story Continues…

The summer is far from over and there are plenty of great films to see. Some have been released, others have not. I’m looking forward to picking them all off one-by-one and writing about them three-by-three. In the hope that you’ll carry on with me, I’d love to hear some advice in the comments below. What other great films have I missed this summer that I should see before they exit theaters? For reference, I’ve included my list of summer movies (and my own personal grades for each) below:

  • Godzilla (B+)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (C+)
  • Chef (C-)
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (B-)
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction (D+)

Up next week: some thinking man’s summer movies seem like a much needed change of pace, even if they aren’t a change in scale. I’m thinking apes, trains and charming indies.


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