By Indiewire | Indiewire August 31, 2005 at 6:17AM
We'd prefer not to have to once again go over the corrosive specifics of the summer's oft puzzled-over "summer slump." But with its projected "whopping" 9% drop from 2004's box-office totals and 11.5% decline in attendance, what are we supposed to do in response? Suddenly decry the paucity of strong Hollywood product? Sorry for the lack of alarmism on our part, but we're not pubescent enough that we can't recall the dour humidity of summer 1995 ("Judge Dredd," "Congo," "Nine Months,"), the scorching sunburn of July 2000 ("The Perfect Storm," "Loser," "Coyote Ugly"), or even last year's less than tanned and toned lineup ("Scooby Doo 2," "I, Robot," "Thunderbirds"). Strange to suddenly be chastising Hollywood for just doing what it thinks it does best, even if people are preferring more and more to watch movies at home instead.
And who are we joking: In the comfort of their own living room, fridge in crawling distance, people are mostly going to watch those very same shitty movies -- it's not really a clear-cut choice between the studio drivel of "The Island" and the art-house satisfactions of the latest Michael Haneke film. So, while we were on summer "vacation" (i.e., we worked, hard, all summer, at our respective jobs) we feel that the movies' pains and pleasures were mostly business as usual. However, we did learn 13 valuable lessons.
#1. Don't forget last year's festival favorites.
Tempting as it is to think that the only cinematic nourishment this summer came from a passable Caped Crusader and a precocious kid named Spielberg, the truth is, thankfully, more complicated. "Saraband," "Tropical Malady," "The World," "Look at Me," "Kings and Queen," "The Holy Girl," "Or (My Treasure)," all of which played last year's festival circuit, each had their American releases during the summer months. And they all came and went far too quickly -- for critics they were last year's news, but for filmgoers they provided an embarrassment of riches. How could one choose between "Tropical Malady" and "The World," both opening in New York the very same week? For my part, I almost let "Saraband" slip out of theaters without seeing it; afterwards, I admonished myself for taking such a major cinematic event -- a new film from the world's greatest living filmmaker -- for granted. Lesson learned: We all get caught up in the hype of the moment (how else to explain that ticket I bought for "Monster-in-Law" while neglecting "The Holy Girl"?), but this summer offered enough under-heralded great films to populate the better part of any critic's year-end top-ten list. Who cares if they were recycled from Cannes or Toronto or New York? I still can't think of seven better reasons to have stayed out of the sun. -CW
#2. Summer "fun" can be serious as a heart attack.
Our preeminent humanist Hollywood craftsman, Steven Spielberg dug deep into collective historical and contemporary trauma to revitalize the rote imagery of movie apocalypse in "War of the Worlds." Even when trafficking in such ostensibly "popcorn" modes, Spielberg manages to attract controversy: charges of opportunism abounded from his detractors concerning his evocation of 9/11 and the Holocaust. Yet what the astonishing experience of "War of the Worlds" proves, perhaps once and for all, is that this stuff courses through Spielberg's veins -- his notion of spectacle has become so informed with historical degradation and recognizable human error that every set piece packs an emotional wallop other studio filmmakers bend over backwards to attain. The church façade cracking apart from its edifice and lurching forward through the town square, the SUV careening through miles of stalled cars in a single take while Dakota Fanning hyperventilates, the nightmarish tripod emerging like Chernobog on the hilltop in the far distance as the ferry sets sail -- all unforgettable compositions that took me three viewings to fully digest. Even after its much-derided sentimental wrap-up "War of the Worlds" left me bruised and battered; people call stuff with this much forward propulsion "machine-tooled," yet there's more loving human care put into one frame of this than in more "reputable" processed art-house cheese like "The Beat That My Heart Skipped" or "Heights." -MK
#3. Don't believe the (indie) hype.
By nearly all semi-delirious accounts, the summer's greatest thanks should go to Miranda July, ostensible art-house angel descended from the writers lab at Sundance to illumine all that's missing in indie cinema with her blend of bleeding heart earnestness and pomo personal inquiry, "Me and You and Everyone We Know." The film aptly juggles a dewy romantic comedy for the geek-chic set and fingers suburban malaise of a sub-Solondz tenor, but the lavish praise that made "Me and You" a go-to favorite is disconcerting considering the summer practically teemed with comparable independent fare. As August comes to a close and the heat wanes, it's worth asking again: Was it really that good? Isn't the film assembled with hip art student one-liners that glide along the surface of a narrative just sort of strung together with stand-alone tableaux? What may be the unfortunate result of July's career in shorter works for video is that her successes come scene by scene rather than as a formative whole, and the veneer she constructs piecemeal is not ultimately opaque enough to hide its lack of depth. Though it's an intoxicating elixir brewed of an idea here and an idea there, it doesn't take long to come down from the high. So, before we go declaring Miranda July the millennium's hi-def love-child of Maya Deren and Woody Allen, we'd do well to avert our eyes to the real works of import that graced cinema's summer stage. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Tropical Malady," for instance, found its voice all but drowned out when it played in tandem with "Me and You" at downtown New York's just-opened IFC Center -- a real shame considering the Thai love story had a lot more to do with me and you and everyone we really know than anything July had to offer all summer long. -MP
#4. Don't believe the (counter) hype.
If the failure of "Cinderella Man" had Hollywood execs lamenting the futility of releasing "serious" summer fare (even a money-back guarantee couldn't drag 'em in), the unexpected success of "Million Dollar Baby" scribe Paul Haggis' "Crash" proved that counter- programming is alive and well. And thanks to Oprah Winfrey, the "Crash moment" has even entered the vernacular. So what, exactly, am I missing? Despite its pedigree, "Crash" is a preposterous and pretentious meditation on Coincidence and Race, tracing the interconnections among some 20-odd Angelenos during the course of two absurdly action-packed days -- it's like Spike Lee meets Krzysztof Kieslowski after a night of heavy pot smoking. Contrivances abound (Thandie Newton is pulled out of a flaming car wreck by the racist cop who molested her the night before -- I swear I didn't make that up); character psychology flies out the window (the most likable character commits murder by film's end); emotional exploitation takes the place of intellectual coherence (a little girl is almost killed in the most shameless and risible scene). Somehow, though, "Crash" managed to convince moviegoers that it offered some kind of serious, adult alternative in a sea of summer diversions. Too bad it didn't come with a money-back guarantee of its own. -CW
#5. Quantity does not equal quality.
A spring release in New York and Los Angeles, "The Best of Youth" finally lumbered into our provincial capital city this summer trailing waves of hype. The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Voice, Variety, TV Guide, Ebert, Entertainment Weekly, etc. -- low-, middle- and highbrow were united in their acclaim for Marco Tullio Giordana's six-hour miniseries turned two-part saga by Harvey Weinstein. Which is why I hold more contempt for it than any other movie I saw this summer. There were stupider movies and certainly more disposable ones, but "The Best of Youth" emblematized the philistinism that has come to pass for film criticism in this country. Patting its boomer audience on the back for having lived through some heavy shit, the movie makes "Forrest Gump"'s ham-handed intertwining of history and History look positively Hou Hsiao-hsien-esque. Every twist is telegraphed, every turn contrived, every moral jackhammered home. By any standard, this is no more than a passable soap opera. But package it as a fest-fave epic, slap subtitles on the sucker, and watch misguided critics call it "novelistic" and "expansive." If it's not too late, here's my Metacritic blurb: "Longer than life itself -- and much less interesting!" -EV
#6. The kids are not alright...
If 2005 is the ballyhooed year of the "iDocumentary," then Apple owes us an apology. A good case in point would be director Marilyn Agrelo's painfully trite and amateurish first effort, "Mad Hot Ballroom," which reduces an unusual NYC Public Schools ballroom dance program to tedious cliché. It's a shame too, because the instabilities rife throughout the narrative hint at far more incisive truths than the ones saccharinely oozed at us about (gasp!) boys and girls coming of age and making peace with their fears of cooties. The film falls into the usual camera trap of following photogenic and disarmingly precocious kids through fragmentary narratives instead of far more provocatively addressing the class issues that seem to bubble up uninvited at nearly every turn, such as the socioeconomic differences between the competing schools (Tribeca vs. the Bronx, anyone?) or the motivations of the adults involved. Revealing moments -- like the bizarre, weepy breakdowns of the Tribeca homeroom teacher that seem to disturb her young students but, oddly, not the filmmakers -- though dutifully recorded, are clearly not prioritized as part of an important arc. Nor is any attention given to what appears to be the true "lesson" of the competition-that the kids best at performing adult sexualities are the ones who ultimately win best in show. That a program supposedly aimed at helping kids stay out of dangerous, age- inappropriate pitfalls would reward the most precocious performances of inherently sexy dances like the merengue or tango, raises questions too big and uncomfortable for this neat little be-ribboned box of a documentary. -MM
#7. ...Then again, maybe they are.
"Sky High" charms for the same reasons "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" remains a seminal treatise on the perils of adolescence for so many and, sadly, stays an unseen victim of snobbery for most: Both are quite sincere in their treatment of real adolescent issues of transition... first day jitters, first date jitters, jitters period... even if their premise is inherently high concept. An affable nugget of Disney live-action nostalgia, "Sky High" (in a sly play on high-school hierarchies) divides its superpowered student body into heroes and sidekicks (the PC moniker being "Hero Support") through a grueling series of standardized tests, each administered with sadistic relish by the school's sonorous gym teacher (Bruce Campbell, who battles with Dave Foley for the title of Summer Scenestealer as a spurned Boy Wonder past his prime). Enter Will Stronghold (Michael Angarano), scrawny progeny of superhero parenting team Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston), who has yet to develop facial hair or any superpowers and, well, you can guess where all this is going. "Sky High" crams in all the Disneyfied "I learned something today" clichés but in such an endearing fashion and delivered by such a genuinely likable tweenage cast of veritable unknowns that it's difficult not to leave your cynicism at the door. From the covers of John Hughes soundtrack staples to the respectful jibes at comic-book lore (i.e. young Will impressing his crush with a visit to Dad's Fortress of Solitude-esque "Secret Sanctum"), "Sky High" is a postmodern trifle that pays respects to its cinematic alumni without pandering to current irony-soaked trends. -SS
#8. Animals are beautiful people.
Since I never actually paid to see "March of the Penguins" (I snuck in after leaving midway through Michael Winterbottom's far less recognizably-human nature documentary on sex and Antarctica), I guess I can't call myself a complete supporter of Luc Jacquet's charming surprise blockbuster doc. But nevertheless, buoyed by some of the most deft publicity in recent years "Penguins" actually reminded people of some of cinema's most enduring basics: it's escapist, educational, and emotional, and never condescendingly so. "It's just a nature documentary!" many regrettably opined, as if that itself were cause for rejection. Well, lo and behold, look what "Penguins" has wrought: It gave Werner Herzog a bona fide hit. Coasting a bit on Jacquet's good-naturedness, Herzog's musings on Tim Treadwell, "Grizzly Man," has been packing them in at downtown theaters. Hilariously its most recent ad, with a goofily smiling bear, are trying to make the film out to be another benevolent National Geographic film, circumventing its very Herzog-ian underpinnings, not to mention its backstory (leave the kids at home, Treadwell was eaten, folks). The film's found footage is often spectacular, yet after decades of Herzog's voiceover impositions (when Treadwell gasps, astonished by the beauty of nature, Herzog interrupts: "I disagree! For me, the world is full of violence and chaos!"), I found myself more drawn to "Penguins" unobtrusive matter-of-factness. Either way, barring all "glorified PBS" grumblings, I enjoyed spending time with both species a hell of a lot more than those faceless idiots fucking and frolicking to Franz Ferdinand in "9 Songs." -MK
#9. There's light at the end of the tunnel.
Each year Summer sneakily creeps closer to kicking off in April so that it has more time to bludgeon us gradually into submission, thereby ensuring that when August rolls around we've turned into mush perfectly ripened for zombies like "Skeleton Key." So what the hell is Universal thinking, unleashing upon unsuspecting audiences a generally intelligent (minus a few cheap shots for the frat set), warm, and worthwhile comedy like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" on August 18? Though Steve Carrell is very good as the titular hero, it's Paul Rudd's hippified electronics salesman who gets the best laughs. His tossed off "Dude, new pants" had me laughing harder than anything in movies recently, and he's got at least two hands' worth of lines just as terrific. Perhaps "Virgin"'s greatest mystery surrounds Rudd's ability to stay employed after devolving into alcoholism and giving himself a very public colonoscopy via handicam, but it's that kind of skewed illogic that runs throughout its otherwise traditional three-act structure and makes the film the very antithesis of the plodding expectedness of "Wedding Crashers." Though I'm sure the audiences overlap-don't be surprised if you find a host of genuinely un-geeky "Wedding Crashers"-type dudes out for more "R-rated comedy" laughing at "Virgin"'s genuine geekiness -- it's the other folks, those tired of the late summer doldrums, who are keeping this thing at the top of charts. Two months earlier or later and it'd have gone unnoticed. Who's excited for next August? -JR
#10. The "Frat Pack" doesn't have the last word in comedy.
In "The Aristocrats" audiences had the unusual experience of watching a documentary where, for a change, everyone is an admitted performer, and not only that but the shtickiest of persuaders: a stand-up comedian. The appeal to Paul Provenza's tour of one foul joke lies in its approach to documentary as praxis, the conviction that there's no better way to explain the phenomenon at hand than to wheel out your own version and crank it up. With so perfect a control experiment, of course, the weaker practitioners become apparent fast (and seem so very, very slow), but underlying it all was the novelty and instruction of the film's curious diagnostic feel, testing the reflexes of the funny bone with one technique after another. Even with everyone doing their "bits" (or touch-ups to their stage images), there was often a striking transparency, in the view into the mechanics of comedy and improvisation. A welcome curiosity. -NR
#11. Don't outsize your expectations.
A slow pitch up the middle for critics if ever there's been one; I blush to think how the hyperbolic appraisals of this film's "deadpan genius" will look in the sober light of hindsight. Two over-coddled matinee cult figures, Murray and Jarmusch prove they can elicit kudos from hip city papers just by showing up on set -- the result is a wanly "solid" mood piece whose sole claim to goodwill is managing to halfway climb out of the hole it digs in its truly abysmal first half hour. The match made in heaven feels obligatory to these eyes -- not for one second am I convinced that Jarmsuch needed to tell the story of Don Johnston half as much as he needed to custom-build a vehicle for Bill Murray. Just competent, politely artistic, and passionless enough to play Masterpiece, it's the cinematic equivalent of listening to Wilco. Suddenly Vincent Gallo, king of the petulant/envious shit-talking interview, seems like a savant: "Oh, Jim's the worst of them all. He was the first person to convert independent or underground cinema into commercial cinema. He was an expert at it." -NP
#12. Good things come in mixed packages.
Arriving on screens 10 years too late, Gus Van Sant's latest exercise in entropy, "Last Days," serves as an object lesson in anachronistic cinema. Imagine what the response would have been had "Last Days" been released immediately following the circus surrounding Kurt Cobain's death. Despite glaring flaws, "Last Days" is a tour-de-force anti-biopic, refusing to confer any sort of importance on its subject's suicide, doing away with a relatable or even intelligible protagonist, and eschewing Nirvana songs (and what last resort might there have been to sell this entirely uncommercial film) altogether. The inevitable failure of "Last Days" to stir debate in the music community or even in the larger public sphere wasn't due to its impenetrability, however. The film is too invested in iconographic mimicry for those who grew up with and now feel they've outgrown Nirvana's legend and are too unwilling to pass down the standby myths of rebellion and danger to the next generation. Cobain, who wore a "Corporate magazines still suck" T-shirt while gracing the cover of Rolling Stone, probably would've loved a film so resolutely out of touch with contemporary tastes and taste-making. -MJR
#13. It's good to not have to leave Brooklyn.
The loveliest movie experience I've had this summer was courtesy of Brooklyn's BAMCinematek's Philippe Garrel retrospective: utterly uncompromised, ascetically intent movies about looking at women, trying to love women, trying to understand women, trying to understand and love women by looking at them, and those women always looking at... something, just off-screen. The forgettable titles feel as disassociated from their texts as New Order songs, but what does remain is the impression of a really committed, personal, and pedantically obsessive body of work. A great reminder of why I bother with movies came in a moment of strange tenderness in 1991's "I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar," a digressive idyll where authorial stand-in Benoît Régent kisses Nico stand-in Johanna Ter Steege while she's sitting on the toilet, peeing. A woman behind me hissed to her theater partner, "What is this shit?" The answer: a look at True Love that's just as weird and ridiculous as the feeling itself. -NP