No movie made more money in August than “The Expendables,” an old school action product so thoroughly decried for its empty, virile spectacles that you have to wonder if the majority of audiences pouring money into Sylvester Stallone’s pocket have done so with full awareness of the blatant stupidity they choose to endorse. People aren’t always sheep, but they often like their entertainment to treat them that way.
That’s a problem faced by adventurous filmmakers and their cohorts in the specialty business on a regular basis, but the final dog days of summer always make it especially clear. August, a junkyard for leftover studio releases as the core demographic of young moviegoers head back to school, rarely offers quality cinema made on any scale.
The mainstream releases that deserve mass audiences usually get relegated to the shadows: While “The Expendables” has been keeping company with “Eat Pray Love” at the top of the box office, Edgar Wright’s stylishly funny Michael Cera vehicle “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” sank fast. A similar fate met “Piranha,” a hilariously twisted blend of horror and subversive wit from French émigré Alexandre Aja.
Both movies sport an inventive formalism rarely seen in studio films: “Pilgrim” packs together layers of videogame nostalgia and intentionally exaggerated combat to represent an alienated youth’s wandering disposition, while “Piranha” blends the campy thrills of the original 1978 Roger Corman joint with contemporary teen satire and some of the best 3-D effects of the year.
The arthouse charts paint a slightly happier image of audience interests. Two of August’s high quality movies in limited release, “The Tillman Story” and “Animal Kingdom,” have done decent business. “Tillman” is a sharp piece of journalistic outrage over governmental conspiracy, and the superb Australian crime epic “Animal Kingdom” elevates the genre to profound levels of psychological intrigue.
But, the real success story on the specialty turf is “Get Low,” a movie that I frankly can’t stand. Its appeal owes much to its Hollywood pedigree: it’s an old-fashioned, hopelessly sentimental period piece with the universally loved star power of Robert Duvall and Bill Murray. Their presence provides one feeble reason for seeing the movie, but you might be better off waiting for the inevitable Academy-sanctioned clip reel.
On the specialty front, “Get Low” represents the same threat that “The Expendables” does on a wider scale. There’s nothing daring or conceptually new about these movies, nor do they channel fresh energy into conventional formulas. I would much rather see a cinematically audacious movie like “Lebanon” (which coincidentally has the same distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, as “Get Low”) rise to the top of the crop. It’s a war movie, with explosions and theoretically a higher (or at least more credible) body count than “The Expendables,” since it takes place during the very real 1982 Lebanon war.
But director Samuel Maoz, a veteran of that war, uses the constrained setting of a tank to create an original sense of claustrophobia throughout the movie. “Lebanon” exists firmly within a familiar genre while upending expectations. It’s safe to say there’s nothing else like it.
New Yorkers have been provided with a unique look at the tension between old and new with two recent series. Film Forum’s “Classic 3D” program, which ended this week, cobbles together an exhaustive lineup of retro offerings, some of which use the technology better than others. With 45 movies, you’re bound to get some clunkers. The festival’s density emphasizes the breadth of genres to which Hollywood studios applied the technology during its initial popularity in 1953 and 1954. Melodramas, westerns, and musicals all erupted into the third dimension. It makes today’s action-driven standards for the format look downright restrained. At the same time, it illustrates the extent that marketing gimmicks can survive much better than certain modes of filmmaking.
At the other end of the spectrum lies Eric Rohmer. The French New Wave sophisticate, who died in January at 89, is the subject of a comprehensive retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, through September 3. Rohmer made his best movies about the logic of conversation. Movies like “My Night at Maud’s” and “Claire’s Knee” remain objects of endless fascination for the way they put verbal communication front and center, an end rather than a means. To watch a Rohmer movie is to engage with its ideas, question its characters’ motives, understand the characters and pity their shortcomings. Chatter as high art: Now there’s a dimension that no high-tech glasses can possibly provide.
In its basest format — a stunt rather than a narrative device — 3-D serves as the root of all evil that plagues the multiplexes. “The Expendables” is not a 3-D movie, but it might as well be. (“Piranha” exploits 3-D with an efficiency that makes sense, but you wouldn’t know it from the mediocre ad campaign.) In contrast, the talkiness of “Scott Pilgrim,” as much a part of its charm as any of the battle scenes, borrows a page from the Rohmer playbook. So does “Lebanon,” where the limitations of the setting make the impact of the human face and the spoken word more potent than any outrageous visual flourish.
Speaking of visual flourishes: The final weekend of August includes the theatrical rerelease of “Avatar.” On the eve of the biggest 3-D movie ever made returning to the big screen, it helps to remember that the best special effect can be nothing more than a well-positioned camera.