Is it possible for a film about drug smuggling, weapon dealing, CIA-sponsored militias and getting ludicrously rich to be in any way immoral? Tom Cruise helps destroy several Latin American governments and cultures, oblivious to everything except money and a sense of adventure. Do we empathise? Find out as we tolerate American Made so you don’t have to.
I’m trying to figure out why I’m so disheartened with the movies this Summer. It’s true that the Season began badly. Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a disappointment. The areal sequences at the beginning were thrilling. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have undeniable chemistry and seem on the surface perfectly cast. But as the film unfolded, Garfield’s neediness, couched in virtue, and spoken slowly, with each emotion separated from another by a pause in the dialogue and a shake of the head, ended up seeming rather twee and more than a bit tiresome. It was kind of enjoyable but a bit underwhelming and made one ask at what point special effects detract rather than enhance a production? Whatever that point is The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has reached it.
I didn’t expect much from Pompeii, which was lucky as seeing it did make me wonder whether there was a worse director than Paul W. S. Anderson currently in work making big-budget action spectacle. It was so bad that it was an endless source of good jokes, all of them at the film’s expense. Trying to find good things to say about it, all one can dredge up is ‘Kit Hartington has the best abs of the season and is very beautiful’. But one can stay home, watch Game of Thrones, and get all of that plus so much more.
I thought Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla the dullest blockbuster of the season but then, after yawning for an hour and a half, the monsters finally arrived and woke me up. It’s a movie where everyone seems to have done an amazing job except director, writers and actors (Juliette Binoche excepted). Some of the shots are jaw-droppingly good – the vfx truly astonishing, with the scene on the bridge where the monster rises behind the hero and Godzilla’s arrival at the airport being particular delights. But ultimately, Godzilla illustrates how empty and unsatisfying spectacle on its own can be; that there’s a story-telling dimension to spectacle itself; and that a monster movie that doesn’t scare, doesn’t thrill and doesn’t allegorise with intelligence is not much of a monster movie at all.
Which of the Summer blockbusters have been good? Captain America: Winter Soldier (d: Anthony and Joe Russo) was better than the original but was released in March so probably shouldn’t figure in this account. X-Men: Days of Future Past was fun but all I can remember about it now is the sexual abuse lawsuit against director Bryan Singer that preceded the film’s release and the marvelous scenes of Quicksilver in motion. I loved the glossiness of Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, the gorgeous design and look of the film as well as Anjelina Jolie’s magnificent performance in the title role. I also loved that it was a Summer blockbuster aimed at young girls and clearly succeeded in engaging them in the story. I was glad to also see that it was a hit. But good as they are, none of these movies have been good enough to get a general audience to line up to see them again.
The best of the Summer blockbusters so far has been Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow and that in itself has proved depressing. Cruise is terrific in it; he and Emily Blunt have great chemistry together; the premise is excellent: like Bill Murray in Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, Tom Cruise re-lives the same day over and over but the catch is that he’s got to be shot first. Thus, the audience gets to see Cruise save the world but not before enjoying the pleasure of seeing him killed over and over again as he tries to figure out how to do so. It’s intelligent, critical, imaginative and very handsome to look at. What depresses me about Edge of Tomorrow is that its American marketers haven’t been able to sell it in the States. Seeing Cruise giving a great performance whilst he dies over and over again has not proved sufficient to redeem him with audiences there, though clearly world-wide audiences have been much more forgiving of America’s biggest and most iconic star (the film grossed ‘only’ 95,000,000 in the States in contrast to 350,000,000 it made world-wide).
The most hateful blockbuster of the Summer so far has been Transformers: Age of Extinction: crude, ugly in spirit, a kind of barbarism in culture. It seemed to me an illustration of Adorno and Horkheimer’s argument regarding The Dialectic of Enlightenment: all that science, all that knowledge, all that artistry, dazzling shots; all now directed at destruction, and of ideals too not just of things. It’s a cynical exercise: the chasing of the Chinese market, product placement trying to sell things, sexism, all the crash and bang and explosions and metal twisting, a militarist gun-loving display on destruction: thousands of buildings get destroyed, loads of people die, nobody cares.
The Summer has not been without pleasures at the movies, pleasures often found around the edges of, but in the same cinemas as, the blockbusters. 22 Jump Street is very intelligent about the way it makes dumb funny – Channing Tatum dances and speaks up for gay rights and he an Jonah Hill bounce jokes off each other like seasoned music-hall stars of old. I also loved seeing Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises which is slow-paced, meditative, poetic, romantic, bittersweet — it had me on the verge of welling up for most of its length. I was also very intrigued by Amini Hossein’s The Two Faces of January, a glamorous, stylish, star-driven murder mystery set in the early sixties with Vigo Mortensen at his very best as Kirsten Dunst’s deceitful, dissolute, and murderous husband.
Even the best of these films however, did not provide the pleasures one usually expect from blockbusters at their best; which is that they dazzle your senses, give you the impression of being lifted from your seat by images and sounds; that the visual effects result in emotional affect; that the visceral kick in the body leave an afterglow in the heart and head; and, that you respond to all of this both individually and as part of a collective that is bigger than yourself; and that this results in such a satisfying experience that you’re willing to repeat it over and over again as the Summer unfolds. No blockbuster has succeeded in doing this so far. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an indie just out, does in fact seem to be doing this at the moment but it is not big budget, it is not a blockbuster and will have to wait to be discussed in the next column.