Summer movies are supposed to be huge. The studios bring out their biggest moneymakers in May and June so they'll have a chance to sit in the theaters all summer long, raking in money.
Except that many of the movies the studios counted on simply have not performed. For instance, how could you lose with the Smurfs movie (Smurfs: The Lost Village)? Oh, wait. I forgot that I loathed every moment of the Smurfs on television when my kids were young. I would have paid fifty bucks for the privilege of never seeing it. Apparently I wasn't alone in that sentiment. On a $60 million budget, it's barely making that back ... and not making a dent in the costs of promotion, which often equal the shooting budget.
Baywatch had The Rock and Zac Efron. Seriously, how could it lose? Oh, yeah, it was based on a truly lousy tv show. And there was that little problem about how the promos weren't even slightly funny or sexy, and if you don't have either of those, why would anybody go see it? Like Smurfs, it might make back its budget, but it's still a medium flop.
Ghost in the Shell? If it had any promotion, I never saw it. Apparently it wasn't advertised in places that an old coot like me would ever see it. On a budget of $110 million, it's not going to be close to making a profit. Meanwhile, I have no idea what it was about or even what genre it was in. That's a publicity failure.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword wasn't a bad movie, it simply wasn't clear what it had to do with the legend of King Arthur. The result? No chance it will make back its budget of $175 millioni. Next time, kids, just do a remake of Camelot with Zac Efron as Lancelot and Adele as Guinevere.
Yes, of course I was joking.
But it isn't a joke that Monster Trucks had a reported budget of $125 million. Apparently, cocaine is still a problem in executive suites in the studios.
ChiPs? See Baywatch, minus Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron.
Unforgettable? Already forgotten. It's generally a good idea to avoid self-reviewing titles.
It's not all bad news: Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Wonder Woman.
Um, is that the whole list?
Johnny Depp's latest venture in his career of being weird without being entertaining didn't flop, what with guaranteed international sales for the fourth Pirates movie. But it sure didn't match up with the rest of the franchise. Fate of the Furious is a huge hit overseas, so who cares that the franchise is getting anemic and uninspired? Live action Beauty and the Beast? I didn't need it, but those who love it, love it a lot, so it's getting repeat business. Alien: Covenant? Oh, excuse me, was I snoring? Yes? Nuff said.
It's not all bleak. Probably no studio will actually go bankrupt this year.
Now we're late in July, so we're getting the summer movies that the studios didn't expect would spend all summer raking in the dough. Not that the studio had no faith in them. When a studio really hates and fears a movie, they release it in January or February, which is the movie calendar equivalent of a garbage disposal.
So now we've got Spider-Man: Homecoming. When I first heard about yet a third attempt at Spider-Man since 2000, after the Toby Maguire and Andrew Garfield ventures -- both of which I mostly enjoyed -- I couldn't understand the need. Do we really need Spider-Man films to become like a TV series in which they keep remaking the first two episodes?
Happy news: Homecoming is not another version of the origin story. Instead, writers Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Jon Watts (also the director), Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna, and Erik Sommers -- yes, a group larger than the average congressional subcommittee -- did the right thing and created the Smallville version of Spider-Man.
By that I mean that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a high school student who is really trying to (a) get a prom date with a serious beauty and (b) help his brainy quiz team win a national championship. He has a best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), who finds out that Peter is really Spidey, and a bete noir, a fellow student who is always goading him.
When we get home to meet Aunt May, she ain't the grey-haired old lady we remember from the comic books and the previous films. Instead, she's Marisa Tomei, looking every bit as hot as she did in My Cousin Vinny about 25 years ago. Was she twelve when that movie was made?
The personal stories are augmented by the choice to make Peter's superpowers hard to handle. He really doesn't know how far his webs can reach when he throws them. Sometimes he misses and falls splat. He doesn't foresee the consequences of his decisions and finds himself in situations he can't handle.
Tony Stark gives him a Spider-Man costume that's sort of a wetsuit version of Stark's Iron Man outfits, and Ned and Peter hack it to get it out of training wheels mode. But Peter doesn't prepare himself to use it wisely or effectively, and Stark takes it back.
You want soul-searching, disappointment, failure, and all those other accoutrements of adolescence? Peter Parker makes Clark Kent in Smallville look hypercompetent. And yet he is always trying to do the right thing, trying to help.
On the other side of the movie, there's the villain. This is what I hated about both of the previous Spider-Man attempts: the villains. Was there ever anything as humiliating as watching Willem Dafoe try to make the Green Goblin seem like he could be part of the natural universe? It's hard to care about a story in which the bad guy is as believable as Tinker Bell.
In Homecoming, the bad guy is Michael Keaton, and he's completely motivated -- even justified -- because a government agency steps in and cancels his contract to do cleanup and salvage after the alien was defeated in an earlier Avengers movie. (What alien? I didn't remember, either.)
Keaton's character had borrowed, as most contractors do, to buy or lease the equipment to do the job; now he's left holding the bag, and his only consolation is that one of the bureaucrats says, "Next time don't over-extend." Yeah, right.
So Keaton and his crew manage to let some of the valuable alien artifacts fall off the back of the truck, wink wink, and then they set out to make new weapons from them and steal more of the alien stuff from the government. This is what gets Spider-Man on his case. It ends up being a much more personal and believable story.
Plus, near the climax of the film Michael Keaton gets to give what amounts to a Bernie Sanders campaign speech, only way better than Bernie could have given it. Keaton turns in a performance as the most effective comic-book-movie villain ever. (Only possible exceptions: Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor and John Glover's Lionel Luthor in Smallville.)
My opinion: Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best of the Spider-Man movies. Even if you think you don't like comic-book movies, you might enjoy this one. It's what High School Musical should have been.
Here's another summer movie that might easily fall through the cracks. Its biggest problem is the title: Baby Driver.
No, it's not the latest entry in the Look Who's Talking franchise. No, it's not about a baby who drives a car. It's absolutely definitely not for children at all.
The "baby" of the title is a brilliant getaway driver who has named himself "Baby." That's the name everybody calls him until late in the movie. Kevin Spacey places the master criminal who has forced him into his employ, but Spacey never does on the robberies and heists. Instead, he assembles a different crew of criminals every time. The only constant is that in every crew, Baby is the getaway driver.
And that's almost all that I can tell you without spoiling this brilliant, powerful, moving, loving film. Even though Baby is played by the nearly-unknown Ansel Elgort, there are so many other stars turning in brilliant, memorable performances (Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm), who must all have been taking paychecks way under their normal asking price, that you can reach only one conclusion: the original script to this film must have been mind-numbingly brilliant.
Because that's what these actors showed up for: a chance to be in a brilliant, unforgettable movie.
OK, Baby is a getaway driver, so there must be some good car chases, right?
Yes, and unlike the Fast and Whatever franchise, the driving stunts all look like they might be possible in the real world. We get to see that Baby, who does all his driving with a soundtrack playing into his ears from an iPod, really is brilliant, resourceful, quick-thinking, and brave.
I have now told you everything I can without weakening this story. I'll simply add this: If you liked the Matt Damon Bourne series or The Usual Suspects or The Accountant you will almost certainly love Baby Driver. OK, maybe that's the wrong list. Maybe what I mean is, if you like movies, you will love Baby Driver because it's films like this that are the reason movies are an art form.
It's as entertaining as any big-budget studio action film, and yet it's as intimate and real and sweet and funny as a Jane Austen movie. (Not inappropriate, since the sweet/strong female lead, Lily James, played Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.) (Oh, wait. She played that part in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Never mind.)
If you don't catch Baby Driver in the theaters, stream it or buy the DVD or watch it on a premium cable channel. This one is not to be missed.
And also ... Ansel Elgort is going to win an Oscar one day. Maybe for this role.
I missed the original Planet of the Apes though I was certainly aware of it -- my older brother told me the whole story so I didn't have to see it. The first one of the original franchise that I saw was Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which had a bunch of surviving humans living in a cave where they worshiped a nuclear weapon whose radiation had apparently made them all bald with veiny heads. Horrible movie.
Then there was that awful attempt to reboot the Apes franchise back in 2001. They used Tim Burton to direct it, which is a guarantee of a kind of narcissistic idiocy, and then made the plastic ape females look ludicrously human. My thought at the time: Please leave this ridiculous, one-gag franchise alone!
Then they tried it again with the title Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this time with a script and an actual director who knows he's not the star of the film. Rupert Wyatt used James Franco and John Lithgow to good effect, and the writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, turned in a powerful, affecting story that showed several things:
1. People who made this movie had actually seen an ape and read books about apes.
2. CGI has come of age. By motion capture and brilliant animation and texture work, the onscreen apes were absolutely convincing.
3. The starring ape, Caesar, played by Andy Serkis, was as capable of winning the hearts of the audience as James Franco's character. At the end, we realize that Caesar is the star of the movie.
The second movie in this trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, was well written and well-acted, but it all comes to fruition this summer with the powerful movie War for the Planet of the Apes. Woody Harrelson does a great job as the villain, mostly because, as humans (which most people in the audience will admit to being), we can actually see the point of a war to save the human race from domination by newly-smart apes.
Harrelson's actions might be ruthless, and the filmmakers signal us to hate him by giving him Hitlerian visual moments, but he's written to be morally complex and Harrelson brings off the character.
The story, though, is about the apes themselves, and Serkis and the other motion-capture ape actors do a beautiful job of making them individuals. I don't know why orangutans mostly use sign language even though they can talk; and I'm amazed that we're supposed to believe that ape grunts and screeches communicate some pretty complex information. But hey, it is a fantasy.
Think of War for ... Apes as a kind of World War II movie -- a simian Stalag 17, in a way. But that's superficial. In fact this film is about Caesar (Serkis) having to choose between getting vengeance on the Colonel (Harrelson) or gathering his tribe and leading them to safety.
It all works out perfectly, but not as anyone planned. Near the end my wife and I started to realize that War for ... Apes owed more to the book of Exodus than to World War II. If you don't think of The Ten Commandments at a couple of key moments toward the end, you just don't know your Old Testament stories. Or your Charlton Heston movies.
Two new characters are especially memorable. Amiah Miller plays a mute human girl who is adopted by the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). Her muteness is a key plot point in the movie, but her best bits are when she works to support and save Caesar and the other captive apes.
Then there's Steve Zahn in the unforgettable role of "Bad Ape" -- a scrawny, hair-deprived zoo ape who has been surviving on his own since the simian flu epidemic killed off most humans while making the apes it infected smart. His loneliness and naivete are funny and sweet, but when he needs to step up and do hard, brave things, he comes through.
And come on, it's Steve Zahn. How could we not love him?
It's time to stop treating motion-capture actors as if they were not responsible for the performance that ends up on the screen. Nobody bats an eye if an actor is covered in makeup, but when the "makeup" is created in a computer and applied to the actor as a virtual body suit, somehow the award-givers think that the actor is only voicing an animated character instead of creating a whole performance.
Andy Serkis is respected among motion-capture actors because of his pioneering work, his astonishing achievements, and his kindness and generosity to other performers. He has received well-deserved awards from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA -- winning Saturn awards for playing Caesar in Rise of ... Apes and for playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers.
Someday, motion-capture actors will get their own Oscar category -- or they'll be shown the complete respect of being nominated right among the other actors in the standard acting categories. And Andy Serkis will be revered as the first great motion-capture actor, for Gollum and for Caesar.
War for the Planet of the Apes is a fitting culmination of this trilogy. Best of all, you don't have to watch or rewatch the first two films in order to watch this third one -- everything you need to know to understand the story is contained within the film.
Yet why deny yourself the pleasure? Download or get the DVDs of Rise and Dawn and watch them both before going to see War for the Planet of the Apes. Why not have the whole experience?
If you can catch it, HBO ran a very good making-of documentary about War for the Planet of the Apes. The best thing: watching Andy Serkis running with hand-crutches to give him the relative arm-length of apes. In the final version, of course, those short crutches are turned into Caesar's forearms -- but the amazing thing is how beautifully Serkis handles ape body movements.
And we also get to see how the WETA animators use the motion-capture actors' real facial expressions and movements to bring the final ape characters to life, making the CGI apes into true representations of human actors' performances.
Matt Reeves, who directed the second and third movies, deserves full credit. He directed a cast consisting mostly of motion-capture actors, most of the time. And he brings the whole movie together into a coherent whole. Something remarkable was achieved with this trilogy, and in the making-of documentary, we get a sense of who Reeves is and how he made it happen.
The title is War for the Planet of the Apes: HBO First Look.
There aren't that many weeks left in summer. There's a lot of hype -- on channels I watch -- for a science fiction epic called Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. The promos make it look overblown and shallow, and it's based on a comic book series (wow, how did anybody think of that!) but I may well give it a chance.
The movie I'm really looking forward to is Dunkirk, which opens this Thursday -- today, if you read the Rhino Times the day it comes out.
The promos for Dunkirk, though, look as though the filmmakers are following the Hollywood formulas for action pictures. It looks too melodramatic. Yes, people died in the process of evacuating the British and French armies from Flanders, but in the real history, it happened with relatively little interference from the Luftwaffe, compared to what they could have done.
I guess what rings false to me in the promos is this: The civilians who brought their boats to Dunkirk under enemy fire again and again were Englishmen, and that means they would show as little emotion as was humanly possible. True Englishmen don't make good characters in melodrama because they're so low key.
And there's a plot point that comes straight out of film school: The soldier who gets pulled out of the water and then is horrified that the boat that saved him is heading right back to Dunkirk. It just looks so contrived and phony in order to beef up the drama.
Compare this to Clint Eastwood's treatment of Sully, where a hero so low-key he might as well have been British was shown (by Tom Hanks) simply doing his job. Strong emotions were fully contained. That was the spirit that would work best in a movie about Dunkirk.
But it seems Dunkirk is not going to be that movie. Instead, it'll be the melodramatic one. Still, a full-budget movie about Dunkirk is long overdue, and I'm going to give this one a chance. I hope it's a first-rate historical movie rather than a mindlessly formulaic Hollywood film-school project. We'll see.
My order of too many cookies at once -- a "flight" of cookies -- arrived from Schmackary's, so it's time for my report.
First, I didn't try any of the exotic cookie flavors because none of them sounded good to me. I'm a straight chocolate chip cookie kind of guy. To me, if it doesn't look and taste like it was made from the recipe on the back of the Nestle chocolate chip package, why would I eat it?
Well, if it's a really good snickerdoodle then yeah, of course I'd eat it. But I'm not trying anything weird, like cookies with fruit fillings or raisins or other disgusting inedible things.
Now I'm used to them and find they're actually quite good. Are they worth the expense of ordering them? I can't judge for anybody else. I'm glad they're in my house right now, but I think the next time I have Shmackary's cookies, it will be because I'm in Manhattan and the bakery is on the way to somewhere I'm going anyway.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
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