Every month, Ken Lowery and I look at the trailers for a selection of upcoming releases, trying to spot the entertaining, the enlightening and the clues that studio executives are conducting elaborate experiments on the American public.
It’s a short month, as everyone appears to be trying to get out of the way of either The Amazing Spider-Man or that bat guy. Which means interesting little films pop up as counter-programming, but the usual summer glut of big loud and dumb is in short supply.

July 6th

Savages

KL: In glancing back through Oliver Stone’s filmography, I realize I like him much more in theory than I do in practice. To find a movie I’d willingly rewatch – and have rewatched, many times – you have to go all the way back to Talk Radio. There was a time when I consumed Natural Born Killers on something like a monthly basis, but that time has passed. I think there’s something potent in that movie, but I don’t think Stone got to it.

I suspect Savages will be a lot more NBK than Talk Radio, frustratingly half-realized commentaries and all. I suspect a fizzle.

DW: I like the idea of Stone doing a straight-forward crime film, but, similarly to how you feel, I think he’s one of those directors you’re supposed to like more than his actual work justifies. There’s a certain enjoyment to crime dramas, but you usually need some sort of viewpoint character that the audience can identify with. To make a film like this, where everyone just feels slimy and unpleasant, even the supposed protagonists, and actually have it work is a very tricky thing. On paper, Stone is the kind of director who should be able to pull it off. In practice, though…maybe not so much.

If the film underperforms (and given the ubiquity of billboards for it in the Southern California area, they certainly expect it to perform) we may be spared any further attempts to turn Taylor Kitsch into a leading man. So some good may come of this after all.

The Pact

DW: I like my haunted house and ghost movies. I’m always looking for someone who is doing something new or interesting with the subject, or at least taking the old stand-bys and doing them well. We’ve gotten some pretty good one in the last couple of years but far more of the bad ones. (Seriously, I still want to punch whoever it was who told me that Insidious was worth my time…)

I’m putting this in my Netflix queue now, because at some point I am going to want to see it, despite looking like this is going to be a very by-the-numbers and rote look at the idea of a haunted house. (Really, dysfunctional family and old secrets in a story revolving around women?) I’m mostly getting a “let’s make a cheap horror movie, those are usually profitable” vibe off of this one and a sense that I’m supposed to be frightened by people jerking around spastically instead of the atmosphere or the situation.

KL: I guess this is based on a short film by the same writer/director, and presumably somebody liked it enough to give it the feature film treatment, with Sundance selection status and all.

I like that things get obviously weird in the trailer; one assumes all the crazy stuff happens pretty early on and that, at least, may give us some wildness we haven’t seen in other horror movies. But…

But…

I would just once like a horror movie that goes fully phantasmagoric; haunted house stories have a way of getting abstract and intimate in a way few other horror genres can, so why not go full-on Guillermo Del Toro with it? Ah, well. Buzz will sink or swim this one for me.

July 13th

Ice Age: Continental Drift

DW: I’ve never actually sat down and watched the original Ice Age. I’ve seen it, but only in disjointed, out of sequence form, as it seems to be the popular choice for electronic stores to show off their HD televisions. And each new entry in the series does nothing to persuade me that my initial, knee-jerk assumption about the films is correct: these only exist to shut kids up for 80 minutes.

I’d be offended by that gay-baiting bit from the sloth, I guess, at the end of the latest trailer if the entire enterprise didn’t look stupidly offensive from the start.

KL: When I was busy working the freelance movie critic beat, I read of another critic’s retirement, and how the thing he was looking forward to most was not going to the movies. I didn’t understand him at the time, but I understand him now; I look back at everything I wrote about and feel like I could have killed at least 80% of those experiences and be no less a person. While no doubt most of those movies started as a seed of excitement in some writer somewhere, the end product is ten times more Product than it is Art of even Statement.

Ice Age 3: The Ice Age Will Continue Until Morale Improves is precisely such a movie; a great big investment of time and money that’s meant to sell some Happy Meals and pass some hours for parents who need their kids out of their hair for a little while. Maybe I’m coming down hard on little old Ice Age, here, but I promise I do not speak with malice. Only with a clear-eyed assessment of what the movie is, and also what it isn’t: something that will ever see my ass in a seat in front of it.

Red Lights

DW: Oh, God, please don’t be a film where the skeptics discover that the supernatural exists and they are punished for their hubris…

Despite the heavy emphasis on the psychics in the trailer, everything else I’ve read suggests that this is more of a conventional thriller than they’re letting on, and that’s good. There’s a cast here that I really like, DeNiro’s scenery chewing feels appropriate, and if they do go with the “psychics are all crooks and charlatans and bad people” angle then that’s a pretty unique tack for a thriller to take. At least it’s a well that’s not as fully plumbed as the usual serial killer/CEO with a militia at his disposal routes.

KL: Indeed, skeptics do seem to exist in movies to be debunked by the end of act 1 or, if it’s a particularly twisty-turny movie, act 2. But there are a couple things working in this movie’s favor: a quietly stacked deck of talented actors and enough hints that this’ll be a is-he-or-isn’t-he thriller in the style of The Prestige, possibly up until the last minute.

Those kinds of stories can be risky – we’re dealing with fictional reality, so all we’re really seeing is a screenwriter holding out on what kind of world he’s built for as long as possible – but if other themes can be intertwined with the twists and turns competently, we could have something here. I intend to find out.

July 20th

The Dark Knight Rises

KL: I had nothing but good things to say about The Dark Knight, and my appreciation for that movie only deepened over time. So I have no real reason to suspect this will be any less meaty or captivating than its predecessor, beyond a perpetual gnaw of doubt that lingers in the core of all “sure things” and something vaguely defined as the “trilogy curse.” So few people can stick a landing after coming so far; perhaps Chris Nolan is as mortal as the rest of us.

One of Nolan’s gifts is assembling large, talented casts; any third of this movie’s bench could headline a great movie. Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman seems to be getting her Occupy on (which, see below), which is a delicious turn for the character and a great question to pose to Batman: what, above all, gives you the right? (It also calls to mind a deeply cynical “joke” from the Batman analog of the comic series Marshal Law: “Why does a billionaire become a vigilante? So he can keep all his money.”) Tom Hardy’s also a formidable presence, though I question the wisdom of obscuring an actor’s primary tools.

In short, I’ve pre-ordered my opening weekend ticket.

DW: Ending a series is a tricky thing. The number of franchises that have pulled it off successfully are dwarfed by those that have left audiences with that “really?” feeling. Nolan has been mostly reliable in the past, and the (from my perspective anyway) lack of any real hyperbolic hype over this should discourage any “omigod lifechanging” expectations from people. But I’m sure I’m going to hear lots of complaints about how the ending was “disappointing” because that’s just what people are like.

I’ll see it, I’ll probably enjoy it, but I’m not anticipating it as hotly as some of my friends. I’m sure it will be good, and the casting is, as usual, excellent. Maybe I’m just getting too old to be excited at the prospect of a super-hero movie.

July 27th

The Watch

KL: I vividly remember my experience watching Superbad, also written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. I went alone, there were perhaps three or four other people in the audience, and I laughed my fool head off for two hours. If nothing else, those two guys have a gift for authentic dialog.

The movie’s four leads present something of a conundrum, and an interesting spectrum of tolerance levels: Richard Ayoade, who I’m excited to see holding up a corner of the quadrangle. Jonah Hill, who’s peaking just past “maximum enjoyment” into “starting to deeply resent.” Vince Vaughn, who could probably do with staying off the screen for a few years. And finally Ben Stiller, who has cooled it off lately, and come out on the other side an interesting person to watch again. Sometimes.

The trailer’s got some strong moments, but the reviews will make or break this for me. I await patiently on the fence.

DW: As much as I like Richard Ayoade and would like to see him break out into film roles, I can’t help but feel disappointed that he’s playing third fiddle here to a bunch of guys who have mostly worn out their welcome. And it’s not that the film looks particularly bad. It’s just it doesn’t feel particularly notable. The beats and jokes I’ve seen so far all feel like things I’ve seen before.

I’ve seen it suggested that the producers were caught flat footed by real life events that could sour the public on the idea of a neighborhood watch themed movie, hence the sudden prominence of the alien angle in the ads, which might explain why everything just feels half-assed to me. But it probably doesn’t matter, ultimately. The one reason I’m even vaguely curious is Ayoade, and that’s simply not enough to get me to commit time or money to this.

Step Up: Revolution

DW: I think we all knew that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood attempted to cash in on reach out to the “Occupy” generation with a film that clumsily shoves the shallowest of shallow political awareness into a youth film. Of all the ways they could have done it, I’m pretty much relieved that it was in a dancing movie. The whole “hey gang, let’s put on a show and save the community center” vibe is both about as sophisticated as I was expecting the take to be, and about as blandly inoffensive as we’re liable to get (unless someone has a Death Wish remake replacing street gangs with Occupy protestors sitting in a desk drawer, and they probably do).

Or, as usual, I’m just over thinking things and it’s simply that the profit margin on these dancing movies is stupidly big.

KL: Stuff like this is, I feel, a harkening back to an earlier time in movie making; a compilation of very talented people doing what they do committed to film, because that’s easier to transport and showcase worldwide than a traveling company of same. I “get it,” even if it’s not particularly my thing. The Occupy and flash mob stuff is, I don’t know, a stab at relevance. Did we need one?

I suspect I’ll be hearing all about it opening weekend, though. My wife is crazy for dance movies.

Killer Joe

KL: Save for The Dark Knight Rises, this is the last movie of the summer I’m truly excited for. The movie math of sleaze + cast + William Friedkin + NC-17 rating equals five or six exclamation points in Ken World. That Tracy Letts, the screenwriter adapting Killer Joe from her own play, also gave the same play-to-screen treatment for Bug (also directed by Friedkin!) is like a cinematic combo breaker.

Can I just say I’m glad to see Matthew McConaughey come out the other side of his People-Magazine’s-Sexiest-People/Also-Starring-Kate-Hudson phase to do the kind of work you always hoped he would do? Magic Mike, The Lincoln Lawyer, Tropic Thunder, and now this – this is the Matthew McConaughey glimpsed in Frailty, coming to full flower. Hooray.

DW: Yeah, this is what I want. Consistently good cast (even when they’re in a bad movie, Hirsch and McConaughey are entertaining), consistently good director, and a good writer telling an interesting story in a novel way. Yes, it’s a crime film where everyone is unpleasant and they’re doing unpleasant things, but unlike, say, Savages, you get the sense that these are people legitimately in over their heads because of the unforeseen consequences of bad decisions, and that’s pretty damn relatable.

4 Responses to “In A World for July, 2012”
  1. Darin says:

    Just as a little FYI to Ken, Tracy Letts is male.

  2. cdonald says:

    Also, Ice Age: Continental Drift is the fourth movie of the series. They’re not horrifyingly bad films.

  3. jim kosmicki says:

    Scrat from the Ice Age films is a great comic character. Classic Chuck Jones in the best way. the movies themselves are cute, in a sitcom way. Nothing fantastic, but they work for what they are. I’d watch them over most Dreamworks animated films any day (although Dreamworks has stepped up lately).

    but Scrat. Scrat is worth watching – just like the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, he shows that as long as you pick the right joke, it can be told with almost infinite variations…

  4. Candlejack says:

    I’m disappointed with how Savages is looking. I loved the book, had serious doubts about the adaptation–and it looks like those doubts were justified. I’ll still watch it, because a good movie can sometimes make a bad trailer…right?

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