Summer 2009 in Film

by Alex Tower

Nowadays the arrival of summer heralds not only holidays, exam results and being able to legitimately wear sunglasses, but also another line up of expensively lavish Hollywood films. Inflated budgets, overblown special effects, starry casts, high concept plots and incessant marketing are just some of the traits that define the summer blockbuster.  They could be a sequel, or a prequel, or a spin-off, or a remake, they could be based upon a line of children’s toys, or upon a comic book, or an old television series, or as was the case this year: they could be a sequel to a film based upon children’s toys.

  It would appear that these productions have the sole intention of uprooting the masses from our summer comforts and drawing them towards a cinema to marvel at the latest exercise in extravagant entertainment.  This previous summer has set a precedent as the highest grossing summer film season of all time with 4.17 billion taken at the box office. Never before have we as a movie going public gone to the cinema in such numbers for such a concentrated period of time. But this is nothing new as it is almost expected that new summer blockbusters must smash box office records held by a film released the previous summer. It would then make sense to assume that as the revenue increases, the films themselves must concurrently improve in quality with each year. Why else would people flock to them in ever increasing numbers? But when we look back at the films of summer 2009 will we be reminded of films that ignited the cultural zeitgeist, innovative films that offered escapism and delight away from the our dreary recession woes and perhaps most importantly will be look back on films that rightfully earned the title of “most successful summer”. What follows is a retrospective, not of every film released over the summer, just a cross section of some of the more popular ones released in Ireland over the summer of 2009.

The summer movie season began in May when the cumbersomely titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine was released. A prequel to the successful Xmen film series, it seemed to try to capitalise on the recent success of both darker comic-book adaptations and origin stories. Despite the talented cast and Oscar wining director, the film was a mess. Incoherent story, poor effects and woeful acting all contributed to make it incredibly disappointing. However despite its critical battering, the film took 350 million worldwide, and a sequel to this prequel will no doubt see release in some future summer. JJ Abram’s Star Trek soon followed, the first of two summer films to be based upon a classic American TV series. Like Wolverine, the film was an origin story detailing the first mission of Captain Kirk and his crew. However unlike Wolverine, Star Trek’s performances, special effects and story were all first rate. Disappointingly the film took the same amount at the box office as Wolverine, demonstrating the fading relevance of a film’s quality over the box office.

Following the origin stories of May came the giant CGI robots of June. Terminator Salvation didn’t have a lot going for it. The Terminator series was defined by having Arnold Schwarzenegger in a title role; in his stead Terminator Salvation had the perennially moody Christian Bale and Aussie newcomer Sam Worthington. McG, a man without the decency to have a real name, had to step into James Cameron sized shoes and attempt to restart the series after the disappointing Terminator 3. Despite a critical mauling this film is not as bad as expected. Though Bale is one dimensional, and the plot strains common sense, Sam Worthington and Anton Yelchin’s performances, as well as a Schwarzenegger cameo and some gripping action set pieces manage to salvage it from complete ruin. However mere weeks later we were presented with another film dealing with large killer robots: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I have a confession to make: I am a closet Michael Bay fan. As much as I might pretend to dislike the “bayhem” he films like a 12 year old with ADHD, I also find it surprisingly entertaining. This meant I was looking forward to a mindless, loud, exploding blockbuster. Instead Michael Bay delivered an overlong, overwrought labyrinth of indistinguishable robots and exposition-heavy dialogue. It’s hard to determine what is the most disappointing aspect: the incomprehensible plot that cumulates in Transformer ghosts giving advice to a laughably earnest Shia laBoeuf, the robot-free forty five minutes of charmless interplay between the protagonist’s family or the overuse of slow-mo and military fetishism that Bay slathers all over the film. But these really don’t compare to Bay’s injection of “character” into the film in the form of two ignorant robots who talk in ghetto slang, have gold teeth, big goofy ears and are heard saying “we don’t read too good”. Seeing two blatantly racist stereotypes in such a mainstream film is very worrying. Almost as worrying as the 800 million this catastrophe took at the box office.

As July rolled round we were given some consolation in the form of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, one of the few films not to be a sequel or based upon something childish. Shooting this John Dillinger biopic in high definition gave the film an original feel, though at times it looked like it was shot with a mobile phone it also leant the film an intimacy and immediateness. Johnny Depp gave a performance to almost justify his superstar status, Christian Bale managed not to be too moody and Marion Cotillard shone as Dillinger’s troubled girlfriend. Though by no means a classic, the film’s technical innovations and stellar cast meant this was one summer film that lived up to the hype. Though not a big summer release, Duncan Jones’s Moon proved to be another gem hidden between larger blockbusters. This subtle, quietly dazzling tale of a blue-collar space drone was a real highlight of the summer thanks to a beautiful score, refined direction and a poignant performance from Sam Rockwell.

In terms of humor, summer 2009 seemed lacking the same amount of comedy films of previous years. In June the surprise hit The Hangover was released. Though the three leads all turn in pitch perfect performances, the film wasn’t as creative as the reviews and box office figures would have you believe and certainly not as quotable as director Todd Phillips previous hit Old School. Sasha Baron Cohen’s Bruno followed and was met with similar success. Despite not being as innovative as his previous effort, Baron Cohen did manage to recreate the cringy, appallingly amusing humor of Borat. The strangest film of the summer however must go to the Will Ferrell vehicle Land of the Lost. Like Star Trek, this comedy was based on a cult television series, however while the series detailed the adventures a father and two children in a parallel universe this takes a much more bawdy approach. The film is incredibly uneven: one minute the adult cast are humorously running from a tyrannosaurs or making friends with a monkey, the next they are making masturbation jokes and dropping acid. While the film does elicit laughs occasionally it is too uneven and cannot decide whether it is a raunchy kids film or childish adult film.

Elsewhere the Harry Potter franchise trundled towards its conclusion with the latest addition Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Having lost interest in the Harry Potter movies one or two films ago, I was surprised with this one. Despite being far too long, it managed to be somewhat enjoyable. The young cast seemed to have improved their acting capabilities a good deal while the finest of British acting talent continue to support them in smaller roles. Rather reassuringly this film managed to beat Transformers box office record, but was far from an excellent film. I had no plans to see G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It looked terrible, a mesh of other films such as Iron Man and Star Wars with the plot of Team America: World Police but none of the humor. It is no doubt due to these reasons that the organisers of the premier, upon discovery they had not sold out the cinema, decided to give free tickets to anyone who approached the ticket desk. Thus I saw G.I Joe. Maybe it was the fact that it was free or maybe everything looks better after Michael Bay’s  robot catastrophe, but rather surprisingly I liked this film. It was the film I had wanted to see when going to Transformers 2: brash, over the top action, passable special effects, a simple good guys versus bad guys plot with actors that made you wonder whether the toys they were playing would have done a better job. By no means a intelligent or very well-made film, but certainly not the terrible one everyone had been expecting.

The last big film of the summer was Quentin Tarrintino’s Inglourious Basterds. His self-described “Spaghetti Western War Film” was another surprise. After the disappointment of Kill Bill: Volume 2 and Death Proof, I really expected this to be the final nail in Tarrintino’s career. Instead he has created one of the year’s best films. Dramatic and shocking one minute, light and funny the next and anchored by suburb writing and terrific performances, with Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender standing out amongst a largely excellent cast. Ironically the star the marketing so triumphantly boasts is the weakest link in the film: Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine seems out of place alongside other, better developed characters and his cartoonish performance is at odds with the rest of the cast and film.

Last year with the release of The Dark Knight, we were given the ideal summer film. A blisteringly original sequel to a film based upon a comic book that took over a billion dollars worldwide, saw universal critical praise and even won a pair of Oscars. However this summer we were given no such film. This summer was characterized more by disappointingly unoriginal films, than those that were interesting and well made. It appears the summer film season operates on a double helix-as the innovative and creative films become less frequent the crass, shoddy cheap ones seem to increase and dominate the box office. In conclusion one thing is certain: the 4.17 billion of this year’s summer movie season was certainly not deserved.