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Summer Movie Season Doldrums. “Where’s The Beef?” Or Maybe “More Cowbell?” And Other Catchphrases…

Summer Movie Season Doldrums. "Where's The Beef?" Or Maybe "More Cowbell?" And Other Catchphrases...

Thinking about Sergio’s box office post yesterday, on the lackluster critical and commercial successes of this summer’s movie season – one that’s on its tail-end – a few things came to me, as we enter what is typically a period when the studios showcase their best work.
It’s maybe not much of a surprise that the summer movie release I enjoyed and appreciated the most wasn’t exactly your typical summer movie: not the expected loud, action-adventure, weighed down by oodles of computer generated effects that overshadow any real character development and even a coherent, engaging story. Like the sugary, fatty snacks we love to eat, that aren’t necessarily good for us, but quench some immediate thirst, and are quickly forgotten. 
Somewhat buried under the onerous heft of entirely unsatisfactory sequels like "Amazing Spider-Man 2," a 4th "Transformers" movie, a second "Captain America," and others, was "A Most Wanted Man," one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final films before his death. A superbly-acted, technically sound, engaging character-driven political thriller. Sadly it’s not the kind of film that will open on 4000 screens nationwide, meaning most of us won’t see it, and many likely will never even hear about it – unless of course it enters the many awards season conversations that will soon start to happen. 
The other film I saw this summer that also stood head and shoulders above the rest was "Snowpiercer" – the wholly original, apocalyptic, relatively low-budget (by Hollywood standards) thrill ride (both literally and figuratively) that tackles class warfare in a refreshing, if chilling way. It too likely isn’t playing at a theater near every single one of you, and won’t make enough of a splash at the box office. But it’s a film that I feel deserves even more attention than it’s received thus far. It’s available on VOD if you’re interested.
To be sure, there were a few standard issue studio-backed summer movies that I saw and wasn’t entirely insulted by. "X-Men: Days of Future Past" was good enough, but not great. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" was ok. And there were 2 or 3 others. It’s just that none of them really hooked me. Maybe it’s just me. I’m too hard to please.
There’s nothing wrong with what I call intelligent entertainment. Sure, bring on the guns, the violence, the sex, the explosions, the special effects, etc. But just don’t forget a smart script, with well-defined and interesting characters, and of course, an engaging story. Or, at the very least, know exactly what kind of movie you’ve got, and don’t pretend (or try) to make it anything else but what it is. "Amazing Spider-Man 2," for example, tried too hard to be many things, and it failed miserably. And I believe that a key part of the problem for the incoherence and flimsiness of a movie like that is the studio’s choice in director.   
Movies, in general, are getting more and more expensive to make, it appears; Ridiculously expensive in some cases. It wasn’t so long ago when the average Hollywood studio movie budget was in the $50 – $60 million range. Now I suspect it’s much higher, especially with what feels like an onslaught of mega-budgeted summer tent-pole movies that cost upwards of $150 million. The obvious problem is that those movies have to make 2 to 3 times their budgets to be considered hits. And when a movie cost $200 million, for it to make $500 to $600 million (whether domestic, international or combined) can be a challenge – especially when the movies themselves just don’t deliver what audiences want, which seems to be the case this summer, if reports of a weakening attendance, and thus ticket sales, are an indication! 
I may be in the minority, but I thought the recent Captain America movie ("Winter Soldier") was actually quite weak. The first one was just OK, in my opinion, but the second, released earlier this year, wasn’t as decent as the first.
Marvel’s director choices on some of its adaptations has been puzzling to me. The Captain America franchise currently belongs to the Russo brothers, whose previous work includes films like "You, Me and Dupree," and "Welcome to Collinwood," and TV series like “Community.” As far as I’m concerned, a resume that includes those 2 films and that TV series wouldn’t lead me to believe that the filmmaker(s) could efficiently make the transition to shepherding a mega-budgeted, special effects-heavy comic book movie adaptation.

As a disclaimer, I’m not on the *inside* so I can’t claim to know exactly what Marvel’s process was/is in selecting directors to helm its projects. The studio was obviously convinced that the filmmakers were well-equipped to handle a film adaptation that was unlike anything they’d tackled before, and on a much grander scale. So I have to acquiesce – as in accept the studio’s decision, but with doubt and protest. Not that my opinion carries any weight here at all.

I do applaud what may have been seen as a risk in taking a chance on the Russos for example. The studio could’ve certainly selected a veteran filmmaker whose past work demonstrated that he/she would be better-suited for an expensive thrill ride based on a fictional superhero in peak human physiological condition, who carries a nearly-indestructible shield. Although, in my not-so humble opinion, this kind of "risk-taking," we can call it, by studios, in selecting directors for these career-making projects, rarely ever happens to directors of color (black directors in this case, given this blog’s focus) and women. And, as far as I’m concerned, the directors Marvel did select have produced 2, at best, average Captain America movies – again, in my opinion – and they’ve been handed the keys for an upcoming 3rd film in the ongoing franchise. 
I’m not a superhero comic book geek by any stretch, but I’m familiar enough to be able to say that these characters and the movies they’re in, deserve better. I thought Bryan Singer did a decent job on "X-Men: Days of Future Past." But I wasn’t blown away by the movie, like I really wanted to be. These are movies about incredibly exciting, otherworldly characters, with abilities beyond anything any human being is capable of, but yet, some (not all) the movies based on these characters are kind of, well, dull, and they really shouldn’t be. 
We’re being sold mediocrity here, as far as I’m concerned, and I think the fact that box office numbers are apparently in decline, based on summer box office reports, maybe speaks to the fact that fewer audiences are buying what the studios are selling. I’d like to think that most of us are smarter than the studios may give us credit for. 
Let David Fincher direct the next Captain America movie. I’d really love to see what the veteran artist behind well-made, smart and mostly successful dark thrillers like "Seven," "The Game," and "Fight Club" could come up with, to be frank. He’s certainly no stranger to large production budgets. I’d even take a Darren Aronofsky for the upcoming "Batman vs Superman" project in place of Zack Snyder, who made the first Superman movie, which I thought was insipid. Superman deserves much more than what Snyder delivered – a filmmaker whose strongest work to date (again, in my opinion) is "Dawn of the Dead," which I liked; Just not almost everything else he’s done since then. Certainly nothing that would inspire me (were it my decision) to give him the director’s chair for a globally-loved character like Superman. 
The last "Amazing Spider-Man" movie (released this year, with Jamie Foxx as Electro) was terrible, I felt! The first one under director Marc Webb’s watch wasn’t that great to begin with, but the second was just awful, to be frank. Prior to being *gifted* the Spider-Man franchise reboot, post the Sam Raimi/Tobey MaGuire trilogy, Webb had directed just one feature film: "(500) Days of Summer." Quite the progression – from an offbeat, indie romantic comedy, which cost around $7 million to make, to directing what is effectively a $230 million action-adventure/sci-fi/fantasy movie about a young man bitten by a radioactive spider, who fends off villains with equally super powers. How exactly does that happen? Again, I’m not an *insider* so I’m not fully equipped to detail how Sony’s director selection process is handled, and I have to believe that the studio chiefs saw enough in Webb and his work to feel good and safe in handing him the keys to their prized superhero franchise. Maybe he shot a Spider-Man short film to show them what he was capable of doing with the material, and, based on all the directors on the studio’s short list of candidates, he proved himself ready and capable. And once again, I’ll say that these kinds of "risks" are rarely taken with directors of color and women. 
A filmmaker by the name of Barry Jenkins also made a beloved (and we could even say a cult favorite) offbeat indie romcom called "Medicine for Melancholy" (although his cost about 1% of what Webb’s "(500) Days of Summer" did; nor did it have recognizable actors starring in it, and a major studio behind it). But I think the work showed enough promise, so much that, 6 years since that film’s release, I’d like to think that he would’ve have had the opportunity to direct at least one other feature film by now – specifically, a studio-backed project. At the time of "Medicine for Melancholy’s" release, his name was on the lips of many. He was on the cover on film-related magazines, like Filmmaker magazine, and the film itself won awards and critical acclaim, with many in the industry branding Jenkins a filmmaker to watch. Since then, he’s added just 3 commissioned short films to his resume, which, while certainly a good thing that his talent is being appreciated by those who commissioned him to make those shorts, and he is continuing to work as a filmmaker, if you told me 6 years ago that Barry wouldn’t get the opportunity to make another feature for at least the following 6 years, that’s a bet that I would’ve put up good money against.
But, as far as I’m concerned, just like the Russo brothers, there was nothing about what Marc Webb, and now Peyton Reed (who’s directing the Ant-Man movie, despite the fact that his most notable films include "The Break-Up," and "Bring It On") have done previously (before they were handed mega-budgeted superhero franchises), that proves they were/are suited for the positions they were hired by the studios to fill.

Feel free to humble and educate me on the studio director selection process for each of these projects, if you’re privy to the methodology. 

Again, I applaud that these studios are taking chances with fresh and unlikely faces behind the camera to helm their comic book movie adaptations, but I think they’ll need to consider hiring directors who, on paper and based on past work, are better-suited talents to helm these films, especially with the 23 or so comic book movie adaptations expected to be released over the next 5 years. That’s right: 23. Many of those may not be the critical and commercial hits the studios will likely expect, if they don’t rethink their creative hiring strategies for each.
Finally, back to box office results for this past weekend…

Who would’ve thought that there would still be a strong appetite for a "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie? Certainly not me. So the fact that it’s doing so well, is something of a mystery to me. But I guess it’s considered a family film, which tend to do well at the box office – especially those based on familiar characters and that are heavily marketed.

I’m surprised at the weakness in ticket sales for "Expendables 3." The fact that the film was leaked online ahead of its official release aside, I also can’t help but feel that Lionsgate’s decision to release a PG13 movie may have also had something to do with its slim sales. The first 2 films in the franchise were both rated R. They weren’t masterpieces of cinema certainly, but they also didn’t pretend to be. Fans knew exactly what they were getting in each, and liked what they were given in return. I know, for me, once I learned that the 3rd movie would be rated PG13, my enthusiasm for it waned immediately. I still haven’t seen it, so I can’t speak to its merits. But what is supposed to be an old-school, men-on-a-mission movie, that prides itself on its uber masculine bent (with a cast comprised of mostly action heroes from a period when those movies were mostly appreciated for their undiluted, un-PC grit, grime, blood and guts), should be fully aware of what exactly it is, knowing what its core audience wants, and delivering on that promise. Lionsgate’s decision to make a film that 13 year old boys would be allowed to see, may have also been to the film’s detriment. Of course, again, the pre-release leak was likely the major culprit, although we may never know with certainty. I actually thought that, with the movie marking Wesley Snipes’ big screen return, this 3rd film would be the highest grossing movie in the franchise. Clearly I’m going to very wrong. 
And then there’s "Let’s Be Cops"… A hit? Who expected that? Did you? I didn’t.
And I think it’s time to put the "found footage" movie to bed. Enough already! Unless the filmmakers behind each project do something with the idea that pushes it beyond what we’ve already seen ad naseam. 
I’m actually surprised at how poorly the second "Sin City" movie is doing. Not that I’m a huge fan, but I just thought it would do better, since the first film was a hit.
With the awards movie season kicking off shortly, I just don’t see many that will be sure-fire box office hits – except for a movie like Christopher Nolan’s latest sci-fi epic, "Interstellar." Although given some of this year’s surprises to the up and down side, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to crown "Interstellar" a smash just yet. Who really knows at this point? 
Hopefully good-old genre thrillers like "A Walk Among the Tombstones" and "The Equalizer" won’t try to surprise us, and will instead stick to the script, and deliver what I think most of us expect of them.
But what were YOUR summer movie season highlights and let-downs? Or did you stay home more often (as I’ve actually been doing), and instead, watched some of this summer’s TV offerings, where you would’ve found some good, and maybe even great material – better than much of what’s screening at the theaters? For example, I just discovered the British spy thriller miniseries "The Honourable Woman," written and directed by Hugo Blick, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, which premiered on the Sundance Channel in July. 3 episodes in, I’m hooked enough to have purchased the entire 8-episode season via iTunes.
Your turn… Dig in…

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Comments

Monique A Williams

I dug Apes very much, Lucy pretty much, but Xmen was only so-so (especially after the last one that was better than the whole franchise), and Spider-Man was a steaming pile of goat feces.
I would love a summer of amazing films with all types of people. And Black films don't have to be "positive" just diverse.

CareyCarey

AlishaAlisha (umm, interesting screen name), you're a good writer, quite poetic I'd say.

The Fincher/King reference was my attempt at sarcasm. It was a response to the ridiculous assertion that Tyler Perry admitting he wasn't familiar with Fincher works was a sinful as Kobe Bryant not knowing Shaquille O'Neal, Beyounce not knowing Etta James until she played her in a movie, and Steve Jobs not knowing Paul Allen. So Alisha, I understand your confusion because Fincher's contributions to this world (absolutely no big deal to me) and his seat at the table of "who's who's" of world history, woefully pales in comparison to that of Dr. King's.

In response to your question "do you sit through the crappy Black themed movies too?", I have much to say. First, yes I do sit through "crappy" movies. Listen, I am merely a black hick from the flatlands of Iowa who loves to stretch-out by viewing the world from different perspectives. Movie watching is one source which gives me that opportunity. Additionally, I've come to believe that a journey shared with another is a more deeply moving experience than one taken alone. I, like everyone who has been caught in the pounce of life's struggles, that which forces us to question our existence, love watching films as a form of entertainment and a means of escape with a friend.

That said, it's clearly obvious we're on different sides of the "movie's relevance" fence. I believe we give too much power to movies. Yet, in your eloquent comment you said (you said much, and dropped plenty words of wisdom, but my basic takeaway was your paragraph)… "I find that mainstream media coverage of Black life seems to focus on the negative… so I've got to go to the movies, independent ones to get my positive media fix"

First, there's no guarantee that independent films = positive black images. But more importantly, and my reason for saying we give to much power to movies, in one year there's approximately 8,760 (EIGHT THOUSAND SEVEN HUNDRED SIXTY!) hours for one to find stimuli/sources/information which can, and WILL be used to form one's core beliefs. Consequently, in our developmental years (10yrs old-20yrs old) there's nearly 90,000 hours. It's safe to say, and RIGHT to say, watching movies will have little to no relevance in shaping our core beliefs.

Alan

"Somewhat buried under the onerous heft of entirely unsatisfactory sequels like "Amazing Spider-Man 2," a 4th "Transformers" movie, a second "Captain America,"…."

*slams brakes*

Captain America: Winter Soldier "unsatisfactory"? No sir, not at all. That was a very enjoyable film. In fact, I liked it better than the first film.

AlishaAlisha

CAREYCAREY, Mr. Fincher doesn't seem to create nonviolent films or inspire the masses to better themselves or be hopeful as does Dr. King. But perhaps I misread your meaning and you meant the Fincher’s work has forever changed American cinema just as Dr. King has forever changed American heck- world history.

Respectfully when you say “But I'll never try to figure out or worry too much about why one director was chosen over another. It's just not something I give much thought” have you considered that you give your economic approval to the directorial selection process and ultimate choice. I wonder, do you sit through the “crappy” Black themed movies too?

I enjoyed watching "Snowpiercer" and "Lucy" although I did not love the ambiguity introduced about the first Lucy’s origins. Why did I enjoy watching "Lucy?" Even though I could not see a woman who looked like me in its entire 90 minute run time I could envision myself as her and I appreciated the universal themes of growth, evolution, riveting fight scenes and the mental evolution which lead to memorable dialogue. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

I find that mainstream media coverage of Black life seems to focus on the negative, profane, incendiary, horrific and mortifying without covering the good, aspirational or even neutral aspects, day in and day out, metronome-like its determination to drain the joy and excitement from us. So I've got to go the movies, independent ones to get my positive media fix. But I’d like to see a mega-budgeted *BOW* *WHAM* *BLOWUP* Set it Off sequel or get to see, (someday) Octavia Butler’s "Kindred" as I saw Orson Scott Card’s "Ender’s Game" for which I waited nearly twenty years.

If I might opine for a moment and borrow from (love) Dr. King as Ms. Me’Shell Ndegéocello says “without shame” and explain why I want to wrestle.

Nearly five score years ago a great American, (Oscar Devereaux Micheaux) in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, wrote, produced, and directed the "Homesteader." With its theme of Negroes, Black people, African American, us, striving, with eyes on the prize-like focus and achieving our Maggie Lena Walker, Percy Julian, Barbara Jordan, and Tulsa Greenwood potential, this audacious presentation of real Black people’s lives served as a great beacon of hope to millions of returning World War I troops who’d escaped the flames and bullets overseas only to swing like strange fruit in domestic trees unwitting stars of all those postcard-captured family picnics.

Micheaux’s "Within Our Gates" unexpectedly swung in timely counter point to Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" and later Mitchell’s "Gone With the Wind" which attempted to knock askew our positive self-image. To Micheaux’s aid came Randall’s "The Wind Done Gone" to bring back our focus on self-determination. The fight is as of yet un-won due to many people's mistaken attribution of Mitchell’s dystopian fiction as history.

But one hundred years later, post Micheaux, the Black film maker is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Black film maker is still sadly crippled by ethnic pigeon-holing and economic chains of short theater run periods, limited releases, and microscopic marketing. One hundred years later the Black film maker marinates in ideas on an island sandbagged with “we’ll see” and “send over a treatment” and “it’s not in the budget” poverty-isms in the midst of a vast ocean of tread and retread tired caricatures, yielding prosperity for all involved in selling disingenuous and dangerous soul-assassinating Black imagery to the masses. One hundred years later, the Black film maker is still languished in the corners of American film festivals and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to make imperative the drawing attention to this shameful condition.

Let us not swallow whole these dried up, rotted, stinking, dream deferring, birther, scarlet, images, I say to you today, my fellow wo(man).

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American cinema.

I have a dream that one day on the bare and drought-ravaged hills of Hollywood, the sons and daughters of voluntary and involuntary immigrants (the 15th generation of Angolan, Congolese, Guinean citizens, among others) and the sons and daughters of recent and not so recent immigrants and émigrés will be able to sip lattes, swig soda pop, and inhale nervously, but together, at the pitching woo (err ah ideas) table and discuss, write, produce, direct, and green-light movies whether they be these mega-budgeted *BOW* *WHAM* *BLOWUP* movies, Black-themed movies, or movies with universal themes of love, uncertainty, friendship, home, laughter, vanity, compassion, kindness, remorse, intrigue, genius, wonder, perseverance, ignorance, alienation, the appropriation, misappropriation, and fabrication of cultural imagery, kinship, self-worth, perceived value and ability to contribute to the greater community, acceptance, rejection, scientific discovery, life.

I have a dream that the four score plus of directors who aren't David Fincher will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged and offered new opportunities based solely on the subject matter of their movies but by the quality and creativity of their work and their ability to make people believe in the worlds they're crafted and vision of those they've yet to realize.

I have a dream of seeing the movie field Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, Julie Dash, Sam Greenlee, Yvonne Welbon, and countless other (Brothers and ) Sisters in Cinema have plowed and sown with films about real Black people yield legions of film making warriors whose films I can see in my local theater, for longer than a night or two, today!

CareyCarey

FREE AT LAST… Great Tambay O. Obenson, I'm free at last! Until I read this post I thought I was stuck (with no one around) in an Ol'Skool pit of despair reserved for Ebenezer Scrooge types who can find no joy from watching today's most celebrated films.

Well, since now I know I am not alone, I am free to say I too thought the Ape movie was just "ok" (I actually feel asleep toward the end) and The Amazing Spider Man was, well, a convoluted mess. Heck, I was never a big Spider Man comic book reader, so maybe I missed something, so someone will have to tell me if the love story theme was always an integral part of the story? Anyway, it did absolutely nothing for me.

And what about Jamie Foxx' character? When the movie started I was all set to like the guy. You know, the lovable shy geek is someone we all can cheer for. But then he morphed into some crazy villain who I couldn't get behind. Yep, I agree, the Amazing Spider Man was terrible!

In reference to who's best to helm these mega-budgeted *BOW* *WHAM* *BLOWUP* movies, I am probably the worst person to ask. I am in the crowd who didn't know who David Fincher was. But after figuring out that to not know him is akin to not knowing how Martin Luther King fits in American history, I did a little research. Well, I found out I actually enjoyed his film. That said, on the flip-side, there are some directors who I shy away from. Off the top of my head John Woo comes to mind. I know some folks love his work but if his name appears on a film, I walk the other way.

But I'll never try to figure out or worry too much about why one director was chosen over another. It's just not something I give much thought. Well, I do have a deep rooted opinion on who should direct "black themed" movies. So if someone asked me who I thought was right for a particular job, then, without hesitation I'd lend my voice.

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