Box Office Bombs

This summer of 2017 has been one of the worst ever for Hollywood.  According to the Hollywood Reporter, the number of tickets sold is likely to hit a 25-year low, and summer box-office revenue in America is down about 16 percent.  If it weren’t for international ticket sales, which increased slightly, the movie industry would be looking at a summer of complete, catastrophic, virtually across-the-board failure.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALESWhy did the summer of ’17 suck for Hollywood?  If you read the Hollywood Reporter story linked above, a theme quickly becomes apparent:  almost every would-be blockbuster seems to be a remake or the latest installment of a tired “franchise.”  Pirates of the Caribbean 5.  The latest Transformers CGI-fest.  The Mummy and Baywatch.  And some of the new efforts, like King Arthur:  Legend of the Sword, were colossal bombs.

It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that the film industry has run out of creative gas. When every big commercial film is a remake of a TV show, a comic book, or another remake, you’re not exactly giving moviegoers lots of new, interesting fare that might lure them to the box office.  You’re not finding the next Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind at your local theater.  Kish and I were totally unmotivated by this summer’s fare. Whenever we checked what was at the local megaplex our reaction was always . . . meh.  We were far more interested in what was playing at the local art film houses, or what was on Netflix.  The only big movie I saw this summer was The Dark Tower, which was an excuse for a bunch of guys to go have a beer and watch an action film.  I would never have gone to see it otherwise.

Will Hollywood learn a lesson from the dismal summer of ’17, and start looking for some new, fresh, original ideas for films that will get people out of their houses and off to the theater?  Maybe — but don’t count on it.  There were some franchise and remake successes this summer, with the new Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, Despicable Me 3, and Wonder Woman films performing well.  Hollywood likes franchises and remakes because they seem safe and conservative, with built-in audiences and no need to come up with original story ideas, so Hollywood will probably point to the successes, disregard the duds, continue with remakes, and comic book stories, and “franchise” flicks.

And if that happens, the rest of us will continue to stay home.

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Hopeless Hollywood Sameness

Yesterday Kish and I decided to go see a movie.  It’s been hot as blazes in Columbus recently, and humid, too, and the idea of sitting for a few hours in an air-conditioned movie theater watching an interesting film was very attractive.

We haven’t been to the movies in a while because, candidly, the array of films offered this summer hasn’t been very appealing.  We have a narrow window of consensus — Kish can’t stand sci-fi and superhero movies, and I groan at the idea of sitting through some deep study of dysfunctional families — but we thought we’d give Jason Bourne a shot.

rs-jason-bourne-ea2bec70-27d1-4c0a-abc0-dcd61b987aa9Several hours later, after we’d been assaulted by loud, chaotic, and grossly improbable non-stop action, we emerged with the realization that Hollywood apparently has run out of ideas.  I think I may have seen part of an actual Jason Bourne movie in the past, but I’ve definitely seen this movie before — over and over and over again.  The film is so trite and formulaic that it immediately seemed like I was watching a rerun.  Even Matt Damon, who typically makes interesting films, couldn’t salvage it.  If you’re considering going to watch it, save your money.

Take every car chase scene you’ve seen since The French Connection, Bullitt, and The Blues Brothers movie, make them louder and longer and more destructive, and move them to Athens and the Vegas strip.  Input a rote, duplicitous bad guy with absolutely no redeeming qualities as the evil head of the the CIA and expect the audience to root for him to be killed.  Take an ambitious female agent with ambiguous loyalties off the shelf.  Add in an unbeatable hero with superhuman intellectual and physical capabilities and have him tracked by another apparently unstoppable cold-blooded killer who he has to fight at the climax.  That’s the plot.  Sound familiar?

The summer movie season used to feature inventive, different movies, like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars and Forrest Gump.  That’s no longer the case.  Now we get sequels, remakes, and canned, tried-and-true formulaic crap.  It’s no wonder that the box office receipts are down this summer.  What we’re getting from Hollywood these days really sucks.

No Good Summer Movies

Jaws was released on June 1, 1975.  Taut, believable, and  brilliantly acted, telling the story of a gigantic great white shark that terrorized a resort town and then coldly set out to kill the men who were hunting it, Jaws was perfect fare for the summer.  Anyone who saw it in a theater with a big screen, with the iconic “dun-dun, dun-dun” music playing and letting you know to prepare yourself for the awful carnage that was going to begin at any moment, will never forget it and always feel a thrill when they think of it.

Summer used to be the big season for movies.  You could relax in air-conditioned comfort, enjoy the movie, and practice the hinge move on your girlfriend in a darkened room.  And Hollywood always seemed to deliver at least one great movie that ran throughout the summer.  Whether it was Jaws, the original Star Wars movies, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, or Animal House, every year there was at least one can’t miss movie that everyone was talking about.  Watch any of those films, or the other summer blockbusters that you remember, and you’ll see well-made films that stand the test of time.

Last weekend Kish and I decided a trip to the movies was a good idea, so we checked the roster at the nearby multiplex.  Another Transformers movie.  Another X-Men movie.  A silly comedy, Tammy.  A remake of a TV series, 22 Jump Street, that we never watched in the first place.  Edge of TomorrowThink Like A Man Too.  And others, equally forgettable.  And this weekend, the big premiere is of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — another remake, one that the previews indicate is full of computer-generated scenes of rampaging apes.  We yawned and decided to pass — and we’re not alone.  With these lame offerings, is anyone really surprised that Hollywood receipts are way down this summer?

In the past, Hollywood at least seemed to make an effort to deliver summer movies that were new and exciting, well-written, well-acted, and well-made.  Now, it offers a steady diet of remakes and movies that rely heavily on formulas and special effects, explosions, and groin shot humor.  If Jaws were released this summer, it would stand out among this tired and uninspired fare like LeBron James at a junior high school game.

C’mon, Hollywood.  At least try!

A Quick Billion Dollars For The Avengers

It’s obvious that The Avengers has struck a chord with me, and with movie audiences generally.  Only three weeks after its release, it has racked up an impressive $1 billion in box-office receipts.

Imagine — $1 billion.  Even by today’s standards, that is a huge amount of money.  What is it about this  movie that has made it so appealing to so many people?  (Russell, who is here for an all-too-brief short visit, is going to see it tonight, and I’m betting he’ll enjoy himself, too.)

It’s important not to overthink these things.  The Avengers is a very good summer movie.  There will always be an audience for movies that feature good-looking women and men in skin-tight suits.  There are worse things than watching Scarlett Johannson fight bad guys in a sleek black outfit.  And there also will always be people who want to see bad guys beaten by heroes, and do so through some impressive explosions and serious ass-kicking.  When the Hulk gets to throw around a stuffed shirt evil god like a rag doll, you can’t help but cheer.

I also think, though, that the success of escapist fare — which is what The Avengers is — often turns on the mood of the general populace.  Things are tough right now.  In Europe, governments are toppling and currencies are failing.  In America, the recession lingers, and lingers.  Unresolved threats can be found on just about every continent.  In short, the world is especially fertile territory for an escapist film right now.  We’d all rather watch Iron Man save the world through one selfless act than focus on those long-term problems that never seem to get solved.

Hangover Part II

I thought Hangover was a classic movie — creative, funny, and filled with the kind of memorable characters and sophomoric humor I relish.  In my book, Hangover will go down as one of the classic Hollywood comedies of all time, in the same league as Animal House and Some Like It Hot.

I therefore am sorry to report that, as good as Hangover was, Hangover Part II is terrible.  It is awesomely, stunningly, epically bad.  Where Hangover was creative, Hangover Part II is derivative.  Where Hangover was deft, Hangover Part II is hit over the head.  Where Hangover was filled with very funny moments that left the theater rocking with laughter, Hangover Part II is filled with weird, gross, unfunny stuff that was greeted with lots of dead air in the theater.

Sequels usually suck, because most really good movies are about stories that are fully, completely told in one film.  Sequels usually have bigger budgets and are produced under enormous pressure to crank something out, while the audience still yearns for more of the characters they enjoyed in the first film.  Hangover Part II has that feel about it.  The Wolf Pack moves to Thailand, with lots of expensive on-location shooting, and the plot reeks of desperation.  It is as if the writers realized they were producing dreck and were looking for something — anything — that could produce a shock or a laugh.  That’s why there is a smoking monkey, and a transvestite, and a speedboat onto the beach, and lots of screaming and obscenity — none of which are particularly funny.

Sometimes, you’ve got to know when to say when.

Super 8

From the 90-degree temperatures that have made Columbus a sweltering place in the last week or so, I think it is safe to say that it is summer.  So, Kish and I decided we should dip our toes in the summer movie season, and tonight we went to Super 8.  It was a wise decision.

Super 8 is a great summer movie.  It draws deeply on the strong Hollywood tradition of youngster “coming of age” movies.  Think of E.T., and Stand By Me, and you will get a sense of the arc of the storyline.  The movie is set in 1979 — and in Ohio! — where a gang of nerdy young boys who are filming a Super 8 movie about zombies end up enmeshed in a much bigger story than they expected.  The hero, who is dealing with tragedy in his own life, grows up quickly as he is faced with great challenges, and along the way the dialogue between the kids crackles, there are a number of humorous moments, and terrific recreations of the 1970s clothing styles, hairstyles, and lifestyles bring back lots of memories.  Couple that with some very moving set pieces — a scene where the young male and female leads inadvertently watch some home movies left Kish in tears — as well as action, sci-fi, an alien, a military cover-up, and just the right amount of computer-generated special effects, and you’ve got all of the elements that anyone could want in a summer blockbuster.

Director J.J. Abrams seems to have his hand on the pulse on America in the same way that Steven Spielberg did during his heyday.  Abrams gets wonderful performances from his two leads — Joel Courtney as the growing-up-before-our-eyes Joe Lamb, and Elle Fanning in a stunning tour de force as Alice Dainard — but the rest of the young cast members are quite good, too.  (I particularly liked Ryan Lee as firecracker-obsessed Cary, a pitch-perfect ’70s kid.)  They also are tremendously believable as the wisecracking young gang that is struggling to grow up while also still reveling in simple childlike pursuits, like lighting firecrackers, building models, and trying to make Super 8 movies. The adult actors are all good, but the kids really steal the show.

If you go to this movie — and I highly recommend you do — be sure you stay for the screening of the finished Super 8 movies that runs during the credits.  It is a classic in its own right.