THR Critics Debate: More Pain Than Pleasure in This Summer's Movies

20th Century Fox/Warner Bros./New Line Cinema/Sundance
From top left, clockwise: 'Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates,' 'The Conjuring 2,' 'The Legend of Tarzan' and 'The Fits.'

From 'Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates' to Tarzan's anachronistic abs, the chills of 'The Conjuring 2' to the charm of KStew, THR film critics dissect a summer movie season short on escapism.

JON FROSCH: Hello, colleagues! Slurp down those cocktails and hop out of the pool, it's time to talk about what we've seen this summer. If "Summer Movie Season" technically stretches from Memorial Day to Labor Day, we're past the halfway mark. And in terms of big releases, we don't have much to show for it, do we? Things got started with the feeble one-two punch of Alice Through the Looking Glass and X-Men: Apocalypse and then sputtered along with a couple of good things (lovingly crafted sequels The Conjuring 2 and Finding Dory), a bunch of bad things (including that inert ab-fest The Legend of Tarzan and the strangely soulless The Secret Life of Pets), some so-so stuff that nobody saw (remember Popstar? Free State of Jones?), two high-profile letdowns (Spielberg's The BFG and Paul Feig's Ghostbusters), and a slew of other titles, most of which don't even merit a mention.

I admit that in terms of pure escapist pleasure, for me nothing topped watching Aubrey Plaza in the sloppy but funny Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. The sight of her shameless sexpot schemer putting on a pair of glasses and nibbling on a pencil in an attempt to pass as a "schoolteacher" made me forget about the scary state of the world outside the multiplex — if only for 90 minutes.

Speaking of the real world, how can this summer's movies compete with the endlessly entertaining spectacle that is our presidential election? It's got everything: two juicy protagonists, a colorful supporting cast (Bernie! Chris Christie! Lyin' Ted!), intrigue (Hillary's emails, Melania's speech), comedy (half of what comes out of Trump's mouth), horror (the other half). Clinton's fight for the White House is a far more compelling feminist narrative than Ghostbusters, and the specter of a Trump presidency is as chillingly dystopian as anything in K-Stew's new movie Equals.

DAVID ROONEY: Speaking of Kristen Stewart, she's having quite a year. Her poise and affectless self-possession made her the only element that kept me watching in Woody Allen's lazily recycled Cafe Society. Even in the dour and derivative Equals, her magnetism prevails. Count me among her fans.

Jon, I'm with you on The Conjuring 2, which is my pick of the summer. It doesn't quite have the vintage horror-throwback chills of its predecessor, but it's still a rewardingly suspenseful nail-biter. Sometimes CG blockbusters are so numbingly artificial in their manufactured spectacle that horror carved by expert hands like James Wan's becomes the most viable option to make you actually feel something in a movie. And unlike Ghostbusters, which mistakes shtick for fully formed characters, The Conjuring 2 had a trio of juicy female roles, played by Vera Farmiga, Frances O'Connor and Madison Wolfe.

I wanted to love Ghostbusters as I'm a fan of all four leads and thought the idea of a female reboot had real promise. Plus I've found the last three Paul Feig comedies thoroughly entertaining. I also would have loved to dismiss all that advance hysteria from fans of the original who rejected a female overhaul on principle alone. But simply putting women behind the proton blasters isn't enough to reinvent the franchise. The movie ends up being a rote retread that fails to explore any of the possibilities of a potentially radical feminist spin.

In terms of pure popcorn, I had a far better time at Star Trek Beyond. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it brings the franchise surging back to life after the leaden Star Trek Into Darkness, and nicely balances the pumped-up action with character-driven scenes showcasing the reboot series' main strength — its appealing ensemble. 

As for The Legend of Tarzan, I felt like I had already done the CG safari thing with the The Jungle Book, and as much as I'm happy to look at a half-naked Alexander Skarsgard dangling from a vine, somehow all that 21st-century-gym-equipment body sculpting doesn't scream 19th-century Africa to me. Hard pass. 


Star Trek Beyond

TODD MCCARTHY: Well, expecting the worst, I was rather surprised to find The Legend of Tarzan entirely watchable, engaging enough and rooted in history in a way that acceptably balances the Tarzan legend's retro origins. Otherwise, it's been bleak. Summer movies are theoretically supposed to mostly be about escapism and, with the dreadful news pouring out from around the world nearly every day and an upcoming presidential election that many of us consider a choice between the lesser of two unpalatables, it would be nice to report that there are films out there one could actually escape into. But, so far, they've mostly been films I've wanted to escape from.

Its success notwithstanding, Finding Dory is second-tier Pixar at best. Spielberg's The BFG was poky, talky and terribly literal-minded. Cafe Society is at least better than Woody's last two, looks great, features a very watchable cast and provokes a few laughs. But it's very lukewarm, C+ Woody. As a major non-fan of the original Ghostbusters, I had no use for the remake; I'd rather see that cast in something else. And X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Independence Day: Resurgence? The only true escape was not going to them at all. The one "serious" drama to be released during this period, Free State of Jones, proved to be an earnest disappointment, while Captain Fantastic, which has generated enthusiasm upon its theatrical release, more properly deserved its more lukewarm reception at Sundance six months ago. Which leaves us with Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, which has its raw and rowdy moments as well as the almost always wonderful Aubrey Plaza, but is still far less funny, inspired and startling than its many rude comedy predecessors.

What have the summer movies offered me, then? The excuse to stay home and binge watch a few of the popular TV series I've never had time to see: the brilliant and reliably hilarious Silicon Valley and, at long last, Game of Thrones. The actors! The set-pieces! How could anyone watch Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings and, especially, The Hobbit after this?

SHERI LINDEN: We're mostly on the same page. Not only have most of the big summer releases been leaden and forgettable — Tarzan who? — but there haven't even been any guilty pleasures. I've yet to see Ab Fab; maybe it will do the trick. Mike and Dave didn't make me smile as it did you, Jon; mostly it made me cringe.

One thing the presidential election has going for it over this summer's movies is that it's less message-y. What that says about our country's future is another matter. Films that should have been buoyant and transporting have been weighed down by a grim determination to teach lessons, or by the self-important mantle of a corporate franchise. I'm thinking of Finding Dory (however beautifully crafted it is), Ghostbusters, Alice Through the Looking Glass and the utterly unnecessary Now You See Me 2. Among the disheartening preponderance of sequels, only The Conjuring 2 has urgency and power, rather than feeling like an exercise in — pardon the expression —brand extension. 

I agree with Todd that binge-watching TV has been far more rewarding than a trip to the multiplex. House of Cards, Fargo, Bloodline, The People vs. O.J. Simpson — damn good storytelling and brilliant acting. At the same time! It's a combo that's in short supply at the moment on the big screen; we usually have to settle for good performances in the service of so-so material. Bryan Cranston's expertly nuanced turn in The Infiltrator is the only reason to see it. The understated eloquence of Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell (as well as Vittorio Storaro's sumptuous lensing) make the all but lifeless Cafe Society endurable. 

Besides The Conjuring 2, only a few summer movies have stayed with me. Two are documentaries: The Witness and Tickled, which, from moment to moment, are thoroughly unpredictable and revelatory. The same can be said of The Fits, Anna Rose Holmer's captivating narrative debut. Musicality, mystery and girl power permeate its every frame. Best of all, especially in this season of flat formula, it's utterly unclassifiable. 

JON FROSCH: You guys are making me feel mighty lonely in my enjoyment of Mike and Dave. At the very least, I think we can all agree that the abs in the movie (which belong to Zac Efron, of course) are more era-appropriate than those in Tarzan. On a different note, Sheri, I actually thought Steve Carrel was a weak link in the charming but minor Café Society (Was he supposed to be debonair? I just can't buy him as debonair). But I share your appreciation of The Fits, which introduced the few people who saw it to a distinctive directorial voice in Holmer and a promising young performer — and unforgettable name — in Royalty Hightower.

That said, hasn't the overall slate of indie, foreign and doc releases — which usually provide reliable refuge from the tentpole tsunami — been sub-par this summer? There've been exceptions, of course, like From Afar, which won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival last year. A feature debut from Venezuelan filmmaker Lorenzo Vigas, it's a suspenseful slow burn of a drama centered on the ambiguous relationship between a middle-aged man and a young thug. It's also a reminder of how much bolder and smarter and subtler gay-themed foreign films usually are than their American counterparts.

Another one I'd recommend is Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda's Our Little Sister, a deceptively slight story of three adult sisters who invite their estranged teenage half-sister to live with them. It flew under the radar at Cannes two years ago, but its gentleness and delicacy, its quiet attention to things like nature, food and the unspoken ties and tensions of family, make the film an ideal antidote to the braying obnoxiousness of most summer movies. Warning: it may also make you very hungry.


Our Little Sister

SHERI LINDEN: “Deceptively slight” is precisely right, Jon. Though Our Little Sister doesn’t have the obvious emotional hook of Koreeda's previous work, its loving immersion in quotidian detail has a cumulative pull, and the film left me deeply moved. And I'm with you on From Afar, which, like its lead character, manages to hold you at arm’s length while drawing you in. At last fall’s AFI Fest, I was on a jury that awarded the feature a special mention for its screenplay. (Our grand prize winner, the Colombian drama Land and Shade, opened in New York in June but has yet to receive a Los Angeles playdate — underscoring the uphill battle for less commercial fare in the movie marketplace.)

On the whole, though, I’d agree that the season’s slate of Hollywood alternatives is more than a bit wanting. But back to Café Society for a second. In thinking about our different takes on Carell’s performance, I’ve come to appreciate an aspect of the film that I hadn’t previously given much thought: the way Allen taps into a certain coarseness beneath the nouveau riche façade of Old Hollywood. Carell’s hotshot agent is decidedly not debonair, but his determination to be perceived as a man of style and elegance lends the character poignancy. It’s not a performance for the ages, but in a story that unfolds like a collection of half-formed ideas, it’s a welcome shot of nuance.

DAVID ROONEY: I'm certainly on board with From Afar, a movie that disdains sentiment and yet draws its characters' longings with a searing emotional power. Both the leads are indelible, but the work of Alfredo Castro (always memorable in Pablo Larrain's films) is devastating. And The Fits was a real discovery for me in Venice last year. Not only is Royalty Hightower (that fabulous name is the stuff of Bond girls!) a terrific instinctual little actor, but the movie is a bracingly original portrait of female self-discovery and alluring peer-group power.

I also fell for Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I had enjoyed his vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, but this move into the sweetly cheesy conventions of the unlikely-family bonding movie was unexpectedly satisfying. The movie is not the least bit shy about its sentimentality but backs up every emotional moment with genuine heart and unquestioning love for its characters, even if some of the comedy is a touch broad. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison have to be the most endearing odd couple of the summer. And if I weren't so anesthetized to superhero movies at this point, I'd be looking forward to seeing what Waititi does with the next Thor movie.

I also have to agree that smart television increasingly is the antidote we all turn to for relief from big-screen mediocrity. I just devoured the most recent season of Veep, which has gone from strength to strength. The latest season of Orange is the New Black was another very satisfying binge watch, starting out shaky but almost imperceptibly acquiring emotional urgency as it built to a shattering finale. And I'm hooked by the riveting procedural The Night Of. Tremendous acting, meticulous plotting and character development, and evocative milieu. All qualities in depressingly short supply on big screens this summer.

JON FROSCH: It took me days to recover from those last two episodes of Orange Is the New Black's fourth season. Powerhouse stuff, not to mention a prime example of television grappling with the world we live in — not always subtly or seamlessly but with guts and heart and fierce urgency — in a way that film, for various reasons, tends not to.

The good news is that there are two big-screen treats just around the bend (each, in its way, deeply engaged with the here and now). One of my favorite selections from this year's Sundance crop, Ira Sachs' wonderful Little Men, gets a limited release next month. And those hankering for a solid summer rom-com will get one a few weeks later in the unexpectedly charming Barack-and-Michelle first-date movie Southside With You. I'm not sure how it'll do at the box office, but I suspect there are a fair number of folks who want to soak in a bit of that Obama magic before the first couple hands over the keys to the White House (sob). 

TODD MCCARTHY: I'll second the enthusiasm for Southside With You. It's properly small-scaled, not self-important, nicely observed with a gentle sense of humor — and, most crucially, it treats the future eminences like ordinary people. It's a sweet and believable account of a long date (it made me nostalgic, as my first "date" involved going to the Chicago Art Institute), and the way Obama's future in politics is worked in is quite strong. I don't know how everyone will react, but it's appealing and not dependent at all upon being a fan of Obama the president.

Another Sundance title to be released in the coming weeks that I would recommend, with qualifications, is Equity, which has been referred to as the female Margin Call. It's steeped in the financial world and well-made and acted, if not quite the knock-out Chandor's first film was. But it's absorbing and illuminating for the way it shows competitive women in a high-stakes world dealing with each other as well as with the men they must also contend with.

In less happy news, Werner Herzog's documentary look at the new technological universe, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, is cursory and disappointing coming from him; it's relatively superficial and lacking in the odd/brilliant insights you expect and want from Herzog.

DAVID ROONEY: Jon, I agree with you on the beautiful Little Men, for me perhaps the most captivating of Ira Sachs' recent films about modern urban life. I would also recommend another strong Sundance title, James Schamus' Philip Roth adaptation Indignation, the pleasures of which are an unfortunate reminder of how few major American movies these days bank on there being an intelligent audience willing to invest in nuanced characters, erudite dialogue and layered themes. It's very finely crafted and features some knockout acting, notably from Tracy Letts in a bristling encounter with Logan Lerman's character in the Dean's office at the film's fictional 1950s Ohio college.


Indignation

TODD MCCARTHY: I think Indignation has its qualities: it's intelligent, has good performances and is evocative of an educational/social world of wildly different mores than today's. But I found it a bit stiff and predictable, lacking in oomph or narrative propulsion. I couldn't very strongly urge anyone to run out and see it, as it would play just as well on a home screen.

SHERI LINDEN: I'm with David on Indignation, and Letts’ performance, in particular, was a true revelation for me. The scene David singles out is one of the most exciting exchanges of movie dialogue in recent memory. I know we were both fans of The End of the Tour, and I would compare much of Indignation, and that scene in particular, to that film. They both give us language as a kinetic force, and conversation as pure, electrifying action. No digital effects or superhero powers needed.

comments powered by Disqus