Summer-movie season is built on expectations and excitement, both from escapism-seeking fans and money-seeking studios. But like just about everything else, there’s no guarantee that all will go according to plan: For moviegoers, Cowboys & Aliens might not turn out to be the Next Great Superblockbuster, which seemed like a foregone conclusion at one point. Let’s take a look at the most highly anticipated movies during the run-up to summer 2011 and how they actually turned out, as well as some blockbusters that had lower expectations going in.
Anticipation: It’ll be sufficient, not great; an appetizer to other superhero movies’ midsummer entrees – with a smidge of doubt about whether Kenneth Branagh, heretofore best known for Shakespeare adaptations, is the right choice to bring one of Marvel’s most beloved characters to the big screen. And who’s this Hemsworth guy?
Reality: Better than our wildest dreams. Branagh enabled Thor to be tense, tight – but he also prevented it from being tightly wound or too tense; this was not a typical Branagh production, and that’s a good thing. Hemsworth, too, did a fine job in the title role, proving that a relative unknown can be good for a high-profile role. The movie earned a somewhat ho-hum (by summer-expectations standards) $448 million in box office around the world, but that’ll go higher with the subsequent Thor entries.
Anticipation: An off weekend. A comedic bridge between tentpole releases. A chick-flick Knocked Up tolerable for dudes – although the much-talked-about “bathroom scene” might detract from that a bit.
Reality: The comedy of the year. Written by chicks and about chicks, featuring an almost all-chick cast, but make no mistake: This was no chick flick. This was fresh R-rated comedy with a fresh voice, and it made a lot of people laugh – and rich.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Anticipation: Why, Johnny, why? Don’t you already own enough islands? We still love you, though!
Reality: No surprises whatsoever in this cash-grab. Possibly better than the previous two Pirates flicks, but nowhere near Curse of the Black Pearl in any way – except moneywise (it’s the eighth-highest-grossing film of all time), which is why there’s no end in sight for this franchise.
The Hangover Part II
Anticipation: The first one was impossible to replicate – and not because it was that amazing – but, of course, here we go again. And, man, does the trailer look bad.
Reality: It made a ton of money, especially internationally (hat-tip to Todd Phillips for setting it outside the U.S.), so there’s that, but can anyone really say this wasn’t a huge step back? Gone was the element of surprise – we know the Galifianakis shtick by now, since he’s cinematically ubiquitous; ditto Ken Jeong – and in its place was lackluster, forced hijinks courtesy of Phillips and Co. in a sequel that just wasn’t meant to be, unless you had a financial stake in the franchise.
X-Men: First Class
Anticipation: Marvel fatigue hasn’t yet set in, and this prequel – at least judging by the trailer – looks like an exciting, quasi-fresh restart. Plus, the studio went the “good actor” route over the “big-name” route. Wise choice, probably.
Reality: Superb acting from non-household names McAvoy and Fassbender and directing from Matthew Vaughn breathed new life into this franchise – in the form of gravity and more serious overtones. Box office ($350 million worldwide) was adequate but not superb.
Anticipation: The next E.T.! It’s got the best, most buzz-building prerelease campaign of any summer movie – not to mention Steven Spielberg as an exec producer and the next Spielberg behind the camera. It can’t fail!
Reality: Meh. Perhaps the buzz was too high, perhaps we were all a little more fatigued from the NBA Finals than expected – and we didn’t even play! – but J.J. Abrams’ unabashed homage to Spielberg didn’t quite deliver on its hype. Box office returns, even on a “shoestring budget” of $50 million, weren’t great, and the movie itself, while undeniably exciting and fun at times, was ultimately a bit of a style-over-substance letdown. An ever-so-slight disappointment from the not-quite-next Spielberg.
Anticipation: This’ll finally be Ryan Reynolds’ long-deserved breakout, catapulting him to the A-list and movie-franchise roles and … [trailer finishes buffering] that cost $200 million to make?? Yikes.
Reality: Reynolds’ ascension probably remains on track, but Lantern was a relative calamity. The movie was a mess, from the disappointing special effects to the non-chemistry to the “Are you kidding me?” storyline(s) – and the box office was even uglier: The movie couldn’t even recoup its budget, which rarely happens for summer movies, even if it means a studio bigwig has to buy millions of dollars in tickets to prevent such a financial travesty.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Anticipation: Oh, right – this franchise still exists. Looks like more of the same: Michael Bayness, minus the shock and awe of the first movie’s groundbreaking effects. Minus Megan Fox, too.
Reality: The most surprising adequacy of the summer. The merciless barrage of effects was par for the course and, unlike the previous Transformers entry, decent enough new-fashioned fun, even with another overlong run time. Also unlike its predecessor? It crossed the $1 billion mark at the (worldwide) box office and wound up in the all-time No. 5 spot.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Anticipation: No Potter finale will please us all (unless J.K. Rowling pops up at the end and says, “Psych! There’ll be one more movie!), but just … blow us away like never before, David Yates.
Reality: Actually, it did pretty much seem to please us all – to the tune of over $1.2 billion grossed worldwide, good enough for third best, ever. And director Yates turned in the steadiest, best, and probably most-faithful-to-the-book Potter flick of the entire franchise. It’s safe to say that the highest expectations of the year were surpassed with Part 2. Satisfying, in every way.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Anticipation: Typically, the worst superhero movie of the summer is saved for last. And Joe Johnston (The Wolfman) does anything but inspire confidence. But hey – never know…
Reality: Not bad. Perhaps aided by the somewhat lukewarm anticipation (and the surprisingly solid reviews), the movie was good popcorn fun, nothing more but certainly nothing less. Chris Evans earned his spot in the Marvel universe, and Johnston deserves credit for helping the movie outgross some of the bigger titles heading into the summer season. Speaking of Cowboys & Aliens…
Cowboys & Aliens
Anticipation: Indiana Jones and James Bond? A brilliant genre-mash concept? Jon Favreau directing? Another movie that just cannot fail!
Reality: Surprise of the Season (Bad Version). Cowboys & Aliens might not quite be remembered as this summer’s Jonah Hex, but, well, it likely won’t be remembered, period. For such an original idea, the execution and end results felt as stale as any token blockbuster wannabe: aimless action, gratuitous explosions, crazy noise for no good reason and altogether ‘WTF?!’-ness. And those box office earnings? Let’s just say that even though the tally will not be finalized for a while, it’ll probably come in at about 10 percent of what the studio was hoping for – and there’s a good chance it won’t even make its money back with worldwide gross factored in.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Anticipation: Before the trailer, almost no expectations. After the trailer – with what looked retro-CGI apes! – almost no positive expectations.
Reality: Surprise of the Season (Good Version). James Franco was innocuous, and the movie, whose trailer resembled a last-gen video game, turned out to be well-done summer fun. It’s already a box office success, with much more money still to come, and probably a sequel or two.
The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.
Don Johnston (Murray)--yes he often gets the allusion to Melanie Griffith's ex but he's tired of hearing it by now--has just been left by yet another girlfriend (Julie Delpy). He doesn't really mind one way or the other. In fact he doesn't have much emotion towards any aspect of his life except for perhaps lying on the couch watching his TV and listening to his offbeat music. Even when receives an anonymous letter in the mail from an ex-lover telling him that he has a now-grown son he shrugs it off. But once his quasi-sleuth neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) gets wind of this he spurs Don on to investigate further. And so the journey begins with Don embarking on a cross-country trek to find the writer of the letter. He revisits his old flames: a widow (Sharon Stone) who's raising a daughter (aptly) named Lolita; an animal communicator (Jessica Lange) with a thriving "practice"; a rather sterile real estate agent (Six Feet Under's Frances Conroy) who's loath to recall her past; and a country bumpkin (Tilda Swinton) resistant to Don's inquiries. Fed up and weary Don returns home to his comfortable misery much to Winston's dismay. But a chance encounter around town sends Don spinning in circles waking him up for the first time in eons.
Much has been said about the minimalist acting in Flowers. That could be because there is actually minimal acting in the film. Instead the focus is on what's not spoken. What's between the lines the dynamics between the characters and what's going on internally--and Murray is brilliant at it. The actor is at his deadpan-best. The neo-Murray embodies everything this man's past has reduced him to--without having to actually rehash said past. Of course we hate to say this since we've been disappointed in the past but Murray may get another good shot at winning his sought-after Oscar. As his partner in crime the always dazzling Wright (HBO's Angels in America)--the Stanley Kubrick of actors who chooses roles that will not compromise his artistic integrity--provides all the overt comedy and interactions we might have expected from Murray. It's a flawless performance. As Don's four ex-flames the actresses' collective screen time are short but necessarily succinct. Most noteworthy among them is Swinton a native Brit who is utterly unrecognizable as Don's backwoods ex.
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch is truly in a class of his own. The auteur with highly eclectic tastes who is also revered in the indie cult community puts out movies few and far between. But he's always prided himself on the fact his films such as Coffee and Cigarettes and Stranger Than Paradise are limited only to his arthouse devotees. Yet with Flowers there has been some trepidation from even his most faithful that this film may be his most mainstream to date. Heaven forbid! It still doesn't detract from the film's brilliance. As with most of Jarmusch's pieces Flowers' central core is discovering the beauty in the mundane. And anyone who thinks Jarmusch may have sold out will be put into their places after seeing the film's most-divisive climax--an ending that is far from the cut-and-dry sweetness to most audiences are accustomed. The writer-director also demonstrates an uncanny ability to tap into Murray's dry sense of humor and cynical outlook on life better than other director. Having previously worked together in Cigarettes we can only hope that the collaboration of Murray and Jarmusch becomes the Johnny Depp/Tim Burton of indie world.