As the writers and editors of The Dissolve have been hard at work building this website—an arduous task requiring can after can of Diet Mountain Dew, 1980s action-montage music, and the manual sequencing of ones and zeroes—more than half of the summer movie season has passed us by. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t been keeping up. Below are 13 conversations between The Dissolve writers about cities leveled, apocalypses of the man-made and zombie variety, and other fun-filled entertainments from the months of May and June.
IRON MAN 3
Scott Tobias: One of the things that fascinates me about studio blockbusters is the push-and-pull between personal expression and commercial expectation. How much can an individual filmmaker’s voice be heard over the market-tested din of a nine-figure production? Especially one by Marvel, which has such a rigid house style. But I should have known not to worry about Iron Man 3 co-writer/director Shane Black, who was once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood for bringing wit and verbal gamesmanship to studio flagships like Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and The Last Boy Scout. Even though Black is working within the Marvel template, Iron Man 3 is the rare summer movie that’s a pleasure to listen to. One of Iron Man’s lines in particular could double as Black’s epitaph: “You’ve got a minute to live. Fill it with words.”
Noel Murray: I agree, to a point. Iron Man 3 fulfills the first obligation of the summer blockbuster: It’s crazy-entertaining, with dialogue that pops and action sequences that start out at 100 miles per hour and then step on the gas. And I give credit to Black (and Robert Downey Jr.’s management team, presumably) for finding a way to keep the leading man and Iron Man on-screen for much of the running time, by giving Tony Stark access to remote-control armor. But just as Iron Man 3’s villain uses a big show of global terrorism to goose his business concerns, Black only feigns at making a larger point about fear-mongering for profit. The cleverness here is all in service of selling the movie, not any ideas within the movie. What I’m saying is: Iron Man 3 is The Mandarin.
Scott: You’ve got me there. I don’t think Black has anything pertinent to say about global terrorism; the big reveal here is a bit of sleight of hand that only incidentally functions as commentary about how terrorism opens the door to larger and more insidious actions. Like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Black’s directorial debut and signature effort, Iron Man 3 is mostly a monument to its own cleverness, and one too mired in Marvel tropes to bear his full stamp. I’m just grateful enough of his wit survived to entertain me before the film disappeared into summer-movie vapor.
Noel: Absolutely. And in retrospect, given what followed Iron Man 3 this summer, I’m already nostalgic for the movie’s relatively light touch. This has been The Summer Of Boom, which Iron Man 3 kicked off in part, by wiping out much of Tony Stark’s personal property and a fairly large civilian-populated chunk of Los Angeles to boot. Yet in the film’s most thrilling scene, the hero zips through the sky to save as many non-combatants as he can after Air Force One gets blown up. Even at the time, I thought it was refreshing to see Black take an interest in some of the people that the Iron Man/Mandarin stand-off was threatening to kill. Now, after a couple of solid months of crumble and lamentation, Iron Man 3 seems downright humane.
THE GREAT GATSBY
Noel: Admitting to liking Baz Luhrmann’s movies is like admitting to enjoying ice cream, disco, and hot-oil massages all at the same time. Luhrmann’s whole modus operandi is overstimulation, and there’s something mildly shameful about letting him get away with dazzling viewers into submission with his blasts of glittery confetti. But damn it, pleasure is pleasure, and while I have very little memory of Luhrmann elucidating the deeper themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic The Great Gatsby, I can’t forget how shiny the movie looks, or deny how giddy that shininess made me feel during the wild party scenes at the Long Island mansion belonging to the mysterious Gatsby. The relentless glitz of Luhrmann’s version of the go-go pre-Depression 1920s expresses joyousness and emptiness all at once. Luhrmann wants people to enjoy the big party he throws, but also to feel that sense of heedless momentum headed toward inevitable oblivion. I don’t think the movie’s wholly successful, but there are stretches that are breathtaking.
Tasha Robinson: Breathtaking, yes, but too familiar for me. I’m more of a Luhrmann fan than most people seem to be: Bring on the ice-cream disco massages! Overstimulation that makes the audience work to keep up is one of my favorite things in cinema, as long as it serves a theme or a concept, as it does in films like Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World or Enter The Void or Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Gatsby has a method to its madness: Jay Gatsby is concealing his real origins and emotions under a false front of libertine chaos. He’s trying to dazzle everyone around him, especially Daisy, and it works best if the audience is dazzled as well. And the movie absolutely is dazzling. What constantly took me out of the moment, though, were all the specific overstimulation tricks Luhrmann recycled from Moulin Rouge: the recontextualized modern music, the zooms through CGI-condensed landscapes flattened into film-backdrop flats, the framing narrator whose words flash onscreen as he wrenches them out, the hypersaturated color, the thematic glitzy parties. So much of the filmmaking here is directly quoting Moulin Rouge that it felt like Luhrmann was plagiarizing himself. I half-wonder if he chose Gatsby to adapt because it has the surface elements he loves, not because he feels strongly about its themes—which might explain why he doesn’t do much with them.
Noel: I think the problem is that Luhrmann is adapting a book with some essential qualities that are impossible to film. He stumbles when he tries to reduce Gatsby to the story of a couple of lovesick kids, and make Daisy and Jay’s earnest expressions of affection and disappointment into the heart of the story—as though the motivations that drove the entire Jazz Age could be scribbled down on an index card and tacked onto some hack screenwriter’s office corkboard. A lot of what makes Gatsby great takes place deep inside the characters, and Luhrmann just doesn’t do internal. But it’s no small feat that Luhrmann created a space that’s simultaneously Fitzgerald’s and his own. It takes nothing away from Fitzgerald’s romantic melancholy to have a version of his story that acknowledges that deep sorrow while arguing that wanton carnality can also be fun, at least for a little while.
Tasha: Sure, but should the focus of any Gatsby be on letting viewers revel in the parties that Gatsby himself only uses as a hollow pretense? That aside, though, I think the film stumbles mostly in softening Daisy into such a sympathetic figure and turning them into star-crossed lovers (another favorite Luhrmann theme) instead of focusing on the one-sidedness of their relationship. The film does an excellent job of portraying the wrong-headedness of Gatsby’s obsession, and his determination to force the world into fitting his fantasies. A lot of that is due to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance; he certainly brings across the feeling of having everything anyone could want, except the only thing he truly wants. But in Luhrmann’s hands, the story is less specific and nuanced, and more a standard shiny tragic romance. It’s beautifully shot and acted, but it feels like a well-tuned car headed in exactly the wrong direction.
STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS
Tasha: Star Trek: Into Darkness refutes 2009’s Star Trek while embracing nearly everything that made it a hit. The first film glorifies James T. Kirk’s recklessness and arrogance, rewarding his meatheaded antics with a spaceship and letting him save Earth. Into Darkness is purportedly about him learning the consequences of his actions, but it doesn’t let up on the throttle: Director J.J. Abrams and his writing team want a film about growing maturity and self-awareness to be just as intense and thrilling as one about being a smug, daredevil brat. It’s an odd agenda, but for me, Chastened, Older-But-Wiser Kirk is at least slightly more interesting than Cocky, Smug Bully Kirk. And the second film has the breathless speed and dynamism of the first. I just wish the plotting were more flawlessly logical.
Keith Phipps: I liked this one better than you, in part because I find Chris Pine disarmingly charming even when his Kirk behaves like an idiot. We could probably fill this space unpacking the film’s inconsistencies, but for the first, let’s say, 80 percent of the movie, I was happy to go along for the ride. The cast of the revived Star Trek films have terrific chemistry—such terrific chemistry that it’s a shame audiences have to wait years between films to see them. Abrams has a gift for big-screen action, and the setup, in which the dove-ish, principled Federation turns hawk-ish and thoughtless in the face of terror, works as a pretty good metaphor for post-9/11 America. It puts a bit too fine a point on it, however, by sending a starship crashing into a major American city in the final act, and never really recovers. (I also wish I didn’t know that co-screenwriter Roberto Orci is a vocal 9/11 Truther. That’s the sort of detail that’s best, but sometimes hard, to forget.)
Tasha: Benedict Cumberbatch was an inside job, Keith. I mean really, he was: If you’re going to go looking for War On Terror metaphor, there’s some Osama bin Laden in the backstory of his character, a man engineered and funded to fight one particular enemy, but eventually becoming a greater threat to his creators. Still, I tend to find most 9/11 metaphors too strident and exploitative at this point; fortunately, until that starship crash, I thought it was fairly easy to filter out here. Abrams hits a fairly perfect balance of action and stretched-out moments where he just enjoys a character, as with the scene of Simon Pegg as Scotty running across a vast interior space in an enemy ship, verbally checking in with his co-conspirators the whole time. The banter in the film is tight and enjoyable, and I’m with you on enjoying the performances—particularly Cumberbatch. Maybe he’s just playing his Sherlock character again, but that’s a character and performance I can’t get enough of. His sharpness and implacability make him a real threat. Frankly, though, I could have done without the dramatic gesture Kirk makes toward the end, stealing Spock’s role from The Wrath Of Khan, which heavily inspired Into Darkness. It’s a natural outgrowth of the “learning and maturing” theme, but for me, it still feels like it’s trying to steal the goodwill and emotion The Wrath Of Khan earned with the same moment.
Keith: Yep. Without the stakes. I don’t know who first pointed it out, but the Star Trek films now exist in a world where death has been defeated, which is silly. But no matter how well Pine and Zachary Quinto played that moment, it never feels as if death could carry the day. The film goes into darkness, sure, but never all that deep.
Scott: Though Noah Baumbach is an expert in dissecting a certain species of urban narcissist, his last three films—The Squid And The Whale, Margot At The Wedding, and Greenberg—had grown increasingly caustic and alienating. So it surprises me little that Frances Ha, his perfect little nugget of a comedy, has become an indie success story: The jerks of Baumbach’s previous films haven’t entirely disappeared, but in Greta Gerwig, he’s found a heroine, a muse, and a collaborator so guileless and open-hearted that she deflects all the sour feelings of a world seemingly set against her. This is a vehicle for Gerwig’s moony charms, and she and Baumbach have crafted a smart screenplay that posits her as the embodiment of the late-20s NYC nomad, drifting from one apartment to another as jobs and relationships either disappoint or fail to materialize. (Comparisons to HBO’s Girls are not out of line—both share Adam Driver—though Gerwig’s temperament strikes me as a daffy, ungainly twist on Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.) In the future, I think Frances Ha will stand as a document of trying economic times, even if that’s not necessarily the primary subject of the film. What did you think, Nathan?
Nathan Rabin: Scott, I loved this film unabashedly. “Perfect little nugget” is right; the film’s perfection is entirely wrapped up in its modest scope and ambition. It’s a delicate, beautifully crafted little snapshot of a specific time, place, and period of intense economic anxiety, especially where recent college graduates are concerned. It’s a film about the in-between times in a person’s life, and money factors into that sense of free-floating uncertainty. In Frances Ha, seemingly everything in the protagonist’s life is in flux: her work, her finances, and her love life. Money lends a certain structure to her life by its absence. The film captures, without putting too fine a point on it, how the contours of a young person’s life and future are often dictated by finances, and the necessity of finding a place to live in a city that can be prohibitively expensive for a lot of people, young or otherwise. Frances Ha’s lineage can be traced back to Woody Allen’s dramatic comedies of the 1970s and 1980s, Baumbach’s previous films, Girls, the French New Wave, and the artsy angst of mumblecore, yet it seldom feels derivative. Baumbach and Gerwig use the cinematic vocabulary of the past to say something trenchant and true and poignant about the joy and pain of the present. For me, Frances Ha is characterized by the sense of rapturous joy rooted in Gerwig’s gloriously unself-conscious performance. The caustic acidity of The Squid And The Whale and the films that followed has been replaced by a new openness, and a lot of joy and light have seeped in. Do you think Frances Ha marks a new direction for Baumbach, Scott? Has Gerwig defeated his sour inner cynic and reconnected him with a lost sense of hope and optimism?
Scott: For the time being, perhaps it has, though all credit to Gerwig for co-writing the script and for specializing in characters who dispel sour vibes, even if their lives are not so great. (She did her best with Ben Stiller’s titular misanthrope in Greenberg, but he was a lost cause.) Beyond the shift in tone, the biggest change in my mind is Baumbach’s economy of expression: Frances Ha clocks in at under 90 minutes, and at least some of that tightness is owed to very brief scenes or montages that capture a line or a moment out of time before moving on to the next one. Baumbach uses this technique to sketch out Frances’ relationship with her best friend—the play-fighting, the in-jokes, the smoke breaks on the windowsill—and he does it again in a masterful sequence where she retreats back home to Sacramento. Everything is cut to its essence. Nothing is wasted.
Nathan: Definitely. There’s a preciseness to Frances Ha that belies the messiness of the lives on screen; it’s a film about the directionless angst of twentysomething bohemians that’s anything but directionless. Though tightness isn’t anything new for Baumbach: When confronted with some lumbering monstrosity that takes two and a half hours to say nothing, I often think about how much The Squid And The Whale gets done in just 81 minutes. I can’t wait to see what Baumbach does next, and very much hope his partnership with Gerwig continues.
Scott: Before Sunrise and Before Sunset end on the same exquisitely romantic question: Will Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) continue seeing each other? Will their passion be confined to one magical evening in Vienna? Or an afternoon in Paris? There’s a part of me that’s sympathetic to Will Leitch’s lament that Before Midnight breaks the spell by showing Jesse and Celine as “cantankerous, unhappy middle-aged jerks” rather than the swooning romantics of the earlier films. But I greatly admire Hawke, Delpy, and director Richard Linklater for imagining a future for the couple that feels absolutely true to the situation and true to the complex, contentious personalities we know from the previous films. By opening the film with Jesse sending his teenage son back to America at summer’s end, Linklater and company register the depth of his sacrifice and the long-term consequences of following his heart, which spill over into resentment and passive-aggression. In tarnishing this perfect, idealized relationship, Before Midnight may not be the movie we want, but it’s the movie we need.
Keith: I’m sympathetic to Leitch’s point of view, since Before Sunset had a perfect ending. But the seeds for the problems on display here were already present in Sunset, thanks to both, as you point out, the personalities of the characters and Jesse’s responsibility to his son. No matter how easy it was to wish for Jesse and Celine to get together, Linklater still made it clear that doing so meant Jesse abandoning his family. And now: the consequences. The problems here aren’t just those specific to the couple’s situation, however. Sometimes love endures, but that first, problem-obscuring blush of romance never lasts, even one that had almost a decade of pining to feed it. Now Jesse and Celine have spent nearly another decade together, and while they still clearly love each other—at least I read it that way—love has gotten hard and now comes with a lot more baggage. Where I left Before Sunset elated at the possibility the characters might get together in spite of everything keeping them apart, I left this movie exhausted, both by what I’d seen and at the thought of all the hard work they’d have to put into repairing the damage of the night, if it could be repaired. While it’s currently my least favorite of the Before series, I admire this film greatly. It’s honest to the characters and honest to life. And, unlike before, I definitely want to know what happens after another decade has passed.
Scott: I’ve come to like Before Midnight as much as the other two in the series, mainly because it made me realize how uncomplicated my feelings toward Before Sunrise and Before Sunset had been. I love them. I love the characters. I love the idea that two people can have an immediate and powerful connection, and that time doesn’t dispel those feelings. Before Midnight is little but complications—the old passions between them are a dim flicker, and the new ones are of an acrimonious kind—and I admire the film greatly for not letting up. You think Jesse and Celine, given some time alone in another impossibly beautiful European city, would bring back that loving feeling. Nope. Respect.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Tasha: The first time I interviewed Joss Whedon, back in 2001, was the first time I heard about the weekend parties where his favorite writers and actors came to his home to hang out and read Shakespeare plays. Like so many of his fans, I immediately thought, “I want to go to those parties!” Much Ado About Nothing is Whedon inviting us all to the party. It’s essentially a low-key home movie, shot digitally in black and white at Whedon’s house over less than two weeks, and starring friends and favorites from various Whedon projects. He has enough of a rabid fan base that this good-natured peek inside his home and hobby is reason enough for this film to exist—but that’s a good thing, because otherwise, I’m not sure why it does. It’s full of cute little grace notes and silly moments, but other than that, it doesn’t add much to the Shakespeare canon. Shakespeare has been done and re-done so many times over the centuries that each new production, for stage or screen, needs to have a conceit, a purpose, and I’m not sure this one does, beyond “Fan-favorite dude felt like doing it.”
Genevieve Koski: Yeah, without the fun backstory goosing it, this Much Ado doesn’t really rise above the level of “cute diversion.” It’s well-executed and generally well-acted, but it’s nowhere near a definitive take on the material. Then again, Much Ado is among the flimsier works of Shakespeare to begin with, chockablock with the sort of gross misunderstandings, mistaken identities, immediate reversals, and general irrational behavior that drive the Shakespearean comedy engine. Whedon has said in interviews that he had his characters constantly boozing it up to justify the “incredibly silly decisions” that keep Much Ado ticking. While the drunken-party atmosphere does add some nice flavor to the proceedings—a party montage set to “Sigh No More” is particularly beguiling—I think Whedon is kidding himself if he thinks any amount of drunkenness makes Leonato cruelly berating and shaming Hero for her accused infidelity work in the same context where Don John’s capture is observed via cameraphone. It’s tricky to make Much Ado work in a modern setting, and the application of liquor and the removal of color is not quite enough to square the play’s text with the film’s surroundings. That said, when approached in the same “Sure, why not?” spirit that apparently inspired the filming, it should be easy enough for even casual, non-Whedonite viewers to fall under Much Ado’s spell for a couple of hours; but like the soused inhabitants of Casa di Whedon, they’ll probably have trouble remembering the next day what all the fuss was about.
Tasha: At least the focus here is on the language, the performances, and the universal emotions they bring across, not on story logic or wink-wink nods to the updated era, so the encroachment of the present usually isn’t invasive. And I did enjoy some of the modern touches, like Don John and his cronies arriving in plastic handcuffs, and being visibly paroled by having the cuffs removed. It communicates a great deal without adding any lines, much like the awkward opening morning-after scene between Benedick and Beatrice. (Though that scene makes Claudio even more of a prudish, possessive twerp by suggesting premarital sex isn’t exactly the worst sin in this world.) Like many directors sticking to Shakespeare’s words rather than paraphrasing, Whedon has to get a lot of his specific interpretation from this kind of dialogue-free character business. And he does, often with cute moments like Dogberry and Verges realizing they don’t have their car keys, or Don Pedro and Claudio fist-bumping when they see Benedick mooning over Beatrice’s portrait. Here’s my biggest conflict with the film, though: The physical comedy is a giggly joy, particularly when Benedick and Beatrice are overhearing conversations designed to be overheard. But all the leaping and rolling and stair-falling during those scenes makes it hard to follow the dialogue. I wish the movie’s funniest bits didn’t come at the expense of comprehension and content, and that Whedon’s distinctive hand and humor were otherwise more in evidence throughout.
Keith: It’s never really fair to talk about a movie by way of its marketing, but I think it’s relevant to After Earth. After The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s name became a selling point, synonymous with a certain kind of atmospheric suspense film with a supernatural bent. Then that name started to take on negative associations when his films started to, well, suck. (There’s a precipitous drop in quality between Signs and The Village, and the drop-offs get steeper from there.) The posters, trailers, and TV ads for After Earth downplay Shyamalan’s involvement, and that’s kind of fitting. Though there are touches of the director who made Unbreakable—the one with a keen eye and tremendous patience—it’s largely an attempt to prove Shyamalan’s ability to helm a big, blockbuster-y piece of entertainment. It’s the second such attempt, following the disastrous The Last Airbender. This isn’t a disaster, but it’s also dispiritingly without much distinction, either. It’s an acceptably brisk survival adventure with above-average special effects and some well-staged action scenes, interrupted by a lot of life-coaching from a badly wounded warrior (Will Smith) instructing his son (played by Smith’s real-life son Jaden Smith) on how to survive on the surface of a post-apocalyptic Earth filled with killer animals. I want to talk about the life-coaching a bit, but first, how did you feel about the film as a whole, Scott?
Scott: Here’s a pull-quote for you: “It’s Shyamalan’s least embarrassing film since Signs!” After Earth strikes me a better model of The Last Airbender, a second attempt to direct a broadly appealing sci-fi adventure, and unquestionably a more competent and superficially arresting one. But I join you in wondering what happened to M. Night Shyamalan, who now appears so chastened by past failures that he’s thrown out the elements that made his previous work so distinctive. Without denying the legitimacy of gripes about Shyamalan’s dumb twists and clunky dialogue (“Why you eyeing my lemon drink?”), he was often exceptionally patient in sustaining atmosphere and making use of offscreen space. All anyone remembers about The Village is the reveal, but there are hushed sequences, in that foggy unknown between the villagers and the “monsters” beyond the border, that reminded me of Jacques Tourneur. After Earth is a diverting but anonymous adventure that feels more like “Un Film de Will Smith,” pressing a fear-free lifestyle that sounds like a new-fangled Hollyweird religion in the making.
Keith: There were times watching this movie when I felt like I’d wandered into a Smith Family Self-Actualization Seminar, an impression enhanced by a setup that leaves an immobilized Will Smith essentially life-coaching his son to safety. The backstory involves an ongoing conflict between humanity and aliens who find their prey by smelling the pheromones humans secrete when scared. They, to paraphrase the film, literally smell fear, and so we get a lot of vaguely New Age-y lectures from the elder Smith about how fear isn’t real and how we have to overcome it to succeed. I half expected a request to sign up for a newsletter at the end of the movie.
Scott: You have to admire the perversity of Hollywood’s most bankable action star conceiving a role for himself where he’s sidelined with a broken leg. Perhaps Jackie Chan should come out of retirement and take a nice, long nap. He’s earned it.
THIS IS THE END
Tasha: Usually when a film gets described as “self-indulgent,” it’s an insult. But self-indulgence isn’t necessarily a problem for viewers that share the filmmakers’ interests. Stoner comedies are made for stoners. Ricky Gervais comedies are made for people who like seeing Ricky Gervais discomfited and sad. And This Is The End is made for people who think it’d be fun to watch Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, Jonah Hill, James Franco, and Danny McBride playing “themselves” as a pack of stoned, selfish, whiny, entitled, hapless twits during the apocalypse. There’s no question that it’s all pretty masturbatory, especially when McBride and Franco spend a couple of minutes mock-masturbating at each other and screaming about the appropriate places to spray semen. But for people who enjoy self-mockery, send-ups of celebrity culture, or these specific comedians, This Is The End is a blast. It isn’t aspiring to classic-cinema status, but it’s clear from the beginning about its aspirations: These guys want to be ridiculous, send up their own images, and let viewers in on their playtime. Self-indulgence bothers me a lot when it’s also serious self-importance, but this film pleasantly surprised me over and over again.
Genevieve: This Is The End’s lack of self-importance is the key that makes its self-indulgence an asset rather than a flaw. At one point, the characters stave off stir-craziness (or indulge it) by making a homemade Pineapple Express sequel, a delightful, self-mocking sequence that seems to nudge viewers as if to say, “We’re just having fun here, feel free—no, encouraged—to laugh at us.” Like most of This Is The End’s best laughs, it’s a situation that arises out of having these specific actors playing themselves, which to my mind negates any complaints of self-indulgence; how can you ding a movie for being self-indulgent when its best laughs are built upon that very foundation? Additionally, This Is The End displays a level of ambition that elevates it above a mere masturbatory exercise. (Hell, even its bits about masturbation are fairly ambitious.) It would be easy enough to sell a film of these particular actors sitting around getting stoned and acting silly for two hours, and to a certain extent, that’s what this is; but the third act moves beyond that in grand-spectacle fashion. It’s shoestring spectacle, sure (though admirably effective for its scale), and the silliness doesn’t abate once the horror- and action-movie elements start moving to the fore. But the fact that writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg not only fully commit to seeing this concept through to its inevitable, insane conclusion, but also pull it off in incredibly satisfying fashion makes This Is The End much more than a comedy-dude wankfest—and one of my most enjoyable movie-going experiences of this summer.
THE BLING RING
Genevieve: While watching The Bling Ring, I was struck by the refrain “There’s so much stuff.” The observation is repeatedly leveled at Paris Hilton, whose walk-in closets and display cases are literally overflowing; the sequences in her home are chaotic and claustrophobic, as if these kids are in serious danger of drowning in a sea of size 10 stilettos. But anyone even vaguely familiar with the nuances of celebrity entitlement knows that the vast majority of these goods were probably gifted to Hilton to wear as a human billboard, and are unlikely to be worn by her ever again. Her walk-in closets are beautiful to behold, but they’re also a sartorial tomb. The Bling Ring kids liberate these forgotten items, initially with enthusiasm that quickly morphs into blasé entitlement. Toward the end, they aren’t even taking specific items they desire; they’re just grabbing more stuff. Soon, they find themselves in the same position as their targets, in possession of so much stuff they don’t even know what to do with it all, squirreling it away in grandparents’ garages and holding tag sales of stolen merch. The portrayal of beautiful, suffocating excess feels like a direct extension of directer Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, as does the idea of defining ourselves by our possessions. What makes The Bling Ring more effective in this regard is its proximity: Such conspicuous consumption is even more conspicuous in the age of red-carpet obsession and relentless celebrity pictorials. It seems like anyone can be royalty—in the modern, celebrity-defined sense—if they just have enough stuff.
Keith: There’s a supercut waiting to happen combining images of excess in this year’s movies. The scenes you talk about would fit snugly beside Gatsby and Daisy falling into raptures over Gatsby’s many fine shirts and Alien’s “Look at my sheeyit!” monologue in Spring Breakers. I think you pinpoint one of the best qualities of Bling Ring: the way all that stuff weighs on those who have it and those who want it. It’s a nice balance to the intoxicating highs that The Bling Ring portrays so well. I just wish the movie had a little more going on besides oscillating between those two poles. As Scott points out in his review, we seldom get a sense of what, if any, kind of inner lives these characters have. That holds its own fascination for a while. It’s kind of perverse how much time these kids spend looking sexy and publicizing their efforts without acting on that sexiness in any way. (Only one scene offers any evidence of a character having any kind of sex life.) It’s almost as if the image was enough. That’s an interesting theme explored well for a while, but Coppola has trouble keeping it compelling for the length of the film.
Genevieve: Oh, I think the characters’ lack of inner lives is absolutely the point of The Bling Ring, and it ties them to their targets in a way that strengthens the film’s themes. The celebrities these kids idolize and mimic are consistently dehumanized by the culture that adores them: They’re not people, they’re walking photo spreads, as flat and lifeless as a page of US Weekly. However, I think how interesting viewers will find that depends on how they engage with celebrity culture on a regular basis. Those who find the very idea of tabloids and celebrity gossip vapid and boring will likely chafe at The Bling Ring’s superficiality after a while; those who actively engage with those things—positively or negatively—are more likely to ascribe depth to the film’s resolute shallowness.
MAN OF STEEL
Tasha: Man Of Steel took a ton of flak for reasons great and small: It’s too dark, it’s too slow, it’s too action-packed. Superman shouldn’t kill, Superman shouldn’t destroy a city full of people during a fight, Superman shouldn’t be pro-choice. What interests me about much of the criticism is that it boils down to “You aren’t handling this familiar icon the way I personally like him best.” Many of the reviews I’ve read have amounted to “There isn’t enough of [my favorite thing about the Superman mythos] and there’s too much [something else] instead.” Too much Krypton, not enough Smallville; too much Superman, not enough Clark Kent; too much Jor-El, not enough Pa Kent, and so forth. After 75 years of Superman ubiquity in American culture, it makes sense that everyone feels a little ownership of the character, and has ideas about what he should and should not be. So here’s a challenge for this dialogue: Let’s talk about the film we saw, and not the billion possible films Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer didn’t make instead. Fair?
Noel: What, you mean I can’t complain that Man Of Steel isn’t about the short-lived “Electric Blue” Superman of the late 1990s? You’re squandering my expertise, Tasha. Perhaps instead I’ll talk instead about what Snyder does well with this movie: reclaiming the Superman saga as science-fiction, by conceiving a Krypton that looks like it originated on the cover of a 1930s pulp paperback. The genital imagery’s a bit overdone—when Baby Superman gets rocketed off the planet, it looks like he’s shooting down the birth canal in a jet-propelled dildo—but otherwise, the alien technology and landscapes are awesome in the old-fashioned sense of the word, in that it actually filled me with awe. Whether that burnished exoticism redeems what the film does poorly is another matter, but do you agree, Tasha, that at least Man Of Steel has a memorable look?
Tasha: The Krypton material, certainly. That’s where Zack Snyder had the most room for visual creativity, given that Metropolis has to look like a gleaming, modern, but recognizable Earth city, and Kansas has to look like the ideal heartland, because they’re both symbols for the parts of the big American dream that produced Superman. Krypton’s importance to the story is mostly in its destruction, so it can be anything before it has to be gone. But I’m going to buck the trend and say I also loved the look of the big, destructive climax that so many people hated conceptually. Visually, it captured the world as Superman would see it: as a blur of giant glass-and-metal objects with the fragility of tissue paper. I can understand and support all the arguments that he should have steered away from those buildings to an unpopulated place, or done more to preserve human life. But the look of the fight fascinated me, because where the comics have always been about looking at Superman—and looking up to him, with awe—this film made me feel what it might be like to be him. Did that final fight, and its controversial climax, bug you as much as it’s bugging the rest of the Internet, Noel?
Noel: Yes, for two reasons. First off, though the movie emphasizes sacrifice and difficult choices throughout (from the Kryptonian opening through Pa Kent choosing to die rather than let Clark save him during the tornado), I don’t think Superman’s choice to kill Zod is earned. Regardless of whether these particular creators should be allowed to have their own version of Superman, they had to know that many longtime Superman fans would balk at that scene, and should’ve made it feel more inevitable. As for the mass destruction, I mainly wonder where the Superman film franchise goes from here. Man Of Steel has all the elements of a series-launcher, but is every Superman movie from now on going to wreak such havoc? Because I was so worn out by the end of Man Of Steel that it made me less excited for Pacific Rim. (And I’ve been really looking forward to Pacific Rim.) That said, like a lot of this summer’s big action movies, Man Of Steel is full of ideas: about heroism, patriotism, Christianity, human nature, and the Superman myth itself. If nothing else, Man Of Steel is going to inspire stacks of academic papers in the coming years.
Genevieve: The third act is where a film is most likely to fall apart, when unlikely events or sudden shifting character motivations force the plot in the direction of an unearned resolution. Not so with Monsters University, whose third act retroactively improves the fairly rote two-thirds that come before it. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, though, as it means sitting through 80 minutes of pretty standard campus-comedy hijinks—translated to the monster world, but no less recognizable for the addition of horns, fur, and slime—before Monsters University seems to become the movie it’s meant to be. The film’s “Pixar-ness,” that specific mode of heartstring-pulling the studio excels at, doesn’t become apparent until Mike and Sulley leave the MU campus and discover the bond between them that will carry through to Monsters Inc.
As with the film it serves as a prequel to, MU is at its best when its central monsters are forced to interact with the human world; I think the disconnect between the human and monster worlds just makes for more interesting conflict than the purely monster-centric elements of the story. But where the introduction of the toddler Boo into Monsters Inc. is the narrative catalyst, Mike and Sulley’s adventures in human-land are a departure from the story MU spends the majority of its energy telling. Before this departure, the movie feels like any other solid-but-unremarkable kiddie movie, complete with a by-the-numbers underdog sports victory. But turning that victory on its head leads MU into much more interesting territory, making it more interesting in hindsight. But is that enough? Nathan, did you also get the sense that you were watching a different movie in the last minutes of MU? And did it change how you felt about the rest of the movie at all?
Nathan: It did. I agree that Monsters University deepens as it proceeds. What begins as Revenge Of The Nerds with fur and teeth grows into something more thoughtful, reflective, and even somber. No studio wrestles with higher expectations than Pixar. It’s not enough for its films to be good; they have to be great, if not downright transcendent. We expect Pixar movies to be beautiful and clever and sophisticated. That’s the baseline. But we also expect them to be emotionally resonant, and Monsters University doesn’t meet that criterion until a final act that complicates and subverts the crowd-pleasing narrative of underdog sports comedies and eschews the cheap, easy victories endemic to the climaxes of underdog sports movies. Monsters University is appealing but minor until an ending that elevates the film from an airy but enjoyable trifle into a film that still qualifies as minor by Pixar standards, but is much more resonant and substantive than the featherweight slobs-versus-snobs comedy of its first two acts.
Genevieve: One thing Monsters University does have over its predecessor (or would that be successor in this instance?): a decade’s worth of advancement in CGI animation. It’s no great revelation to observe that MU looks better than a film made 10 years ago, but the differences go beyond higher pixel counts and better-rendered textures: The academic setting allows for a whole new realm of monster-ized design, from the horned buildings to the dusty lecture halls to the students themselves, who span a much wider range of sizes, shapes, and anatomies. (The winged-millepede design of Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble in particular is awesome in its visceral horribleness.) By getting away from the somewhat sterile environs of Monsters, Inc., Monsters University realizes the vast visual potential of its fantasy world; if only it utilized those visuals in a more consistently entertaining way.
WORLD WAR Z
Scott: After all the reshoots, rewrites, and delays, followed by Brad Pitt’s flopsweat tour of American multiplexes, World War Z had all the signs of a Hollywood debacle for the ages. But the finished product could actually stand to be more of a debacle—or at least have qualities more distinctive than slick proficiency. I haven’t read Max Brooks’ source novel, but I can appreciate the streamlining necessary to make Pitt’s adventures the focal point and have the zombie-infected world of the film open up from there. From the opening mayhem in Philadelphia, World War Z works well as a by-the-lapels thrill machine, whisking the audience from one global trouble spot to another as Pitt tries to track down the “Patient Zero” of this epidemic. But the film has just enough substance to make me wish it had much more. For one, it’s a zombie movie in search of a metaphor—a critique of nations that “protect” their people by building walls gets only a once-over—and the wonkier aspects of searching for the source, which recall Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, are thinned out in favor of hitting the action beats. I also had trouble with the skittering hordes of CGI zombies, which have become the standard since 28 Days Later yet take us away from the thought that these creatures were once human beings. Am I being too much of an old-timer about this, Keith? And having read the book, what did you think of World War Z as adaptation?
Keith: In spite of sequences set in Israel and Korea—both countries with different sorts of border issues—I gave up on World War Z participating in the time-honored zombies-as-metaphor tradition fairly early on. The Philadelphia opening recalls 9/11, but does so without the resonance of War Of The Worlds or the insensitivity of Star Trek Into Darkness and Man Of Steel. And that’s where the film’s most comfortable: Working in a straight-down-the-middle safe zone where zombies are just zombies. But once I figured that out, and figured out how little it has in common with the excellent Max Brooks novel, I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. The big setpieces are all nicely staged and if, as I understand it, most of the reshoots involved the climactic sequence, then it was probably worth the time and money. That stretch worked for me, and I was happy the film ended not with an epic battle scene but with a much more scaled-down bit of drama. It’s a meat-and-potatoes zombie blockbuster movie, but sometimes meat and potatoes satisfy.
Scott: I’m beyond sick of summer blockbusters evoking 9/11 and/or leveling major cities for our presumed edification and fun, but your admission that it was neither as resonant nor as insensitive as it might have been speaks to my reservations about World War Z. It’s diverting enough—and I agree that the closing suspense sequence was money well spent—but the film suggests just enough ambition to get it into trouble. I would have an easier time accepting the lack of zombies-as-metaphor or other real-world implications if World War Z didn’t open up that discussion. I won’t give away how it ends here, but suffice to say, the scope widens beyond what I think this movie can support.
I’M SO EXCITED!
Scott: I’m So Excited! has been hailed as a throwback to the wacky, pastel-bright Pedro Almodóvar of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, before 1999’s All About My Mother signaled a more mature shift in his work. (Though he’s still saucy and irreverent.) And Almodóvar’s ease with byzantine plot mechanics makes him a natural for farce, a form so challenging that we rarely see it onscreen, and even more rarely see it done well. There are subplots and revelations aplenty in the pansexual goings-on on a doomed flight from Spain to Mexico City, and Almodóvar handles them with his typical aplomb, riffing breezily on disaster movies like Airport. But apart from an agreeably fizzy tone and some joyously kinky details, I’m So Excited! feels mostly labored and unfunny to me, with a conclusion that hastily ties up all the loose ends without much of a kick. A good farce should escalate in laughs as the plot threads get knotted up, but the opposite happens here: Almodóvar does well establishing a flight crew of naughty, hard-drinking stewards and the business-class passengers they pump full of liquor and mescaline, but after the splashy “I’m So Excited” musical sequence around the halfway point, I’m not sure I laughed more than once or twice. Am I being a curmudgeon, Tasha, or has Almodóvar lost his touch a little?
Tasha: Let’s not write him off because of one film, not after a decade of effectively crafted dramas like The Skin I Live In and Talk To Her. I don’t think he’s lost his touch so much as he’s touching on things he hasn’t touched in a while: sex farce and satire. I’m So Excited! is Almodóvar mocking Spain’s recent rash of financial and political scandals with a metaphor about a plane going in circles and headed for disaster, with no one competent enough to take charge, suggest a solution, or even stop drinking and screwing long enough to address the issue. I’m not up on my Spanish financial improprieties, so I had to dig around online to find out what he was getting at, and until I read up on the film, it felt like a parody of a movie I hadn’t seen. It’s less accessible than it could be, but there’s no crime in making a film primarily for your own culture or your own era. And while the camp performances and exaggerated hedonism are silly, I didn’t resent the lack of belly laughs: This movie is meant to be caustic commentary as well as a lark. It also feels like an adapted stage play in the vein of A Chorus Line, set mostly in one location, with each cast member in turn bringing his or her personal drama to center stage. Did that limit it too much for you?
Scott: The political metaphor is all extra-textual for me. I wasn’t aware of it until you brought it up just now, though Almodóvar has incorporated politics into his work many times in the past, including the explicit anti-Franco bent of Live Flesh. As for the setting, I didn’t find it at all limiting, because farce demands a much tighter architecture than other comedy genres, which is why most classic examples (Noises Off immediately comes to mind as a model) have stage roots. The one time Almodóvar leaves the plane to follow a subplot-in-development, I found it a delightful departure—a soap opera in miniature—but the halfhearted follow-through at the end doesn’t justify it. There and elsewhere, I’m So Excited! just doesn’t stick the landing the way a successful farce should.
Tasha: Agreed, the ending is the weakest part of the story, probably because the film teases a well-earned disaster that can’t happen in a comedy. This film makes fun of the 1 percent: While all the lower-class schmoes in coach are literally drugged into complacent insensibility, the privileged types up front are making bad decisions and indulging themselves at everyone’s expense. But Almodóvar’s script also wants us to sympathize with their problems, and cheer when they’re saved—all of which means the story lacks bite, or even a sense of ultimate satirical intent. The ending aside, though, I’m So Excited! is a lively piece, and at its best, it does capture the manic energy of classic Almodóvar. And I have to admire the way he and his cast can make even these druggy, boozy, sex-soaked, selfish wastrels into sympathetic characters through the emotions of their performances and their resolutions to turn their tacky lives around.
To read full reviews of most of these films and many others from our pre-launch summer period, visit our Reviews section.