(Films discussed in this post: John Carter, Snow White And The Huntsman, Ted, and Savages.)
So, here’s the news coming out of summer 2012 — superheroes are a big deal. The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises are all hits, with a slew of animated kids’ films (like Pixar’s Brave) also sizzling at the box office.
What’s not so hot? Practically everything else.
There are a handful of titles, like The Bourne Legacy, still in the running to become hits. But on the whole, the fat lady has sung for summer 2012, and it’s business as usual. Comic books, cartoons, and other kid-friendly things are the driving force of the season, while movies that failed to take of this summer include The Watch, Step Up Revolution, Katy Perry: Part Of Me, Dark Shadows, Rock Of Ages, Battleship, and… the list goes on. What do these titles have in common? Well, if the reviews are to be believed, they’re mediocre at best (and godawful at worst).
So, maybe there’s justice at the box office, after all? The year’s three biggest hits so far received better-than-average reviews — we’re talking about The Dark Knight Rises, The Hunger Games, and Joss Whedon’s colossal The Avengers, of course. They’re all aimed squarely at a reasonably young audience, but for once, these blockbusters don’t dumb themselves down to play to the kids. In the case of The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games, there’s more to chew on, message-wise, beyond just senseless action; plenty of food for thought about the role violence plays in our society. And The Avengers, a less heady movie, still had Joss Whedon’s trademark wit to go along with the eye-popping visuals. Will Hollywood take note that smart is beating stupid at the multiplex so far this year?
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. But one of the season’s few non-superhero non-animated smash hits is Magic Mike, a movie squarely aimed at grown-ups (grown-up ladies and gays, specifically). It may have been an artsy Soderbergh movie dressed up in mainstream sheeps’ clothing (rip away, naturally), but it proved sex still sells and R-rated dramas haven’t quite gone the way of the dinosaur just yet.
The year’s biggest hit not based on a preexisting franchise (or an established factory brand like Pixar) is Ted, Seth McFarlane’s thinly-veiled stab at Family Guy: The Movie. (It’s also by far the year’s biggest R-rated movie.) As Family Guy does, it features a supposed-to-be-cute character engaging in ribald behavior, along with a number of esoteric “where did that come from?” pop culture references (featuring digs at everything from Tom Skerritt to Flash Gordon to Katy Perry to Jack And Jill to Taylor Lautner to Superman Returns to Hootie & the Blowfish). But here’s the thing — it is actually sort of funny to see a sentient Teddy Ruxpin-esque creature smoke pot and curse — though I’m not sure I buy that any real woman would go for that whole sex-with-a-turnip thing. (Don’t ask.) Ted‘s savviest zeitgeist reference is actually to Family Guy itself, McFarlane’s way of acknowledging that, yes, he’s aware he’s a one-trick pony. (Or dog, or baby, or teddy bear, or whatever other adorable thing he decides to corrupt next.)
Ted stars Mark Walberg as John, the sort of oafish man-boy so popular in comedies these days. He’s a loser at work, though he somehow managed to snag smart hottie Lori (Mila Kunis — a shrewd bit of casting, since this role could have been a real drag as played by a less winsome actress). Ted could really be the story of an grown-up trying to shed the dead weight of his bad-influence stoner buddy, it’s just that this bad influence happens to be a teddy bear magically brought to life by a childhood wish. In the thirty years since, the world has apparently gotten used to the sight of a walking, talking plush toy, since nobody bats an eye when Ted drives by or shows up in the checkout lane of the supermarket. (It’s a bit unclear why Ted is stuck doing such menial labor when he could clearly save Hollywood a ton of money on CGI, but whatever.)
The story beats are predictable — Lori wants Ted to move out so she and John can move into the next phase of their relationship, John has a hard time letting go, they break up — and even surprisingly, unabashedly sappy at times. The narration from Patrick Stewart has that classic ring to it, though most of the comedic supporting players have little to do (Joel McHale is appropriately smarmy, but what is Ryan Reynolds doing in this movie?). There’s a Toy Story-esque subplot involving Giovanni Ribisi as a kooky, potentially homicidal fan, which could have gone into truly twisted territory but mainly exists to give this film a rather unnecessary action climax. Still, there’s enough irreverent humor peppered throughout to keep things light, and the special effects are astoundingly convincing. McFarlane proves adept enough at crafting a story that fills the big screen at feature length, which is more than I might have expected from him. Plus, who doesn’t love an extended cameo from Norah Jones?
Well, Ted’s hedonistic lifestyle would certainly fit right in in Oliver Stone’s latest effort, Savages — the exact sort of film you’d have expected Oliver Stone to direct a decade ago, before his career took a turn for the blah. Of late, Stone has made a bunch of films that should have packed some political punch, but instead came off as trite and ineffectual. (See: World Trade Center, W., and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps — but I mean, don’t actually see them.) Now, at last, Stone seems to have moved on from his disastrous “W” trilogy (concerning 9/11, George Bush, and the recession — the three worst things to happen to America since the year 2000, arguably) and gotten back into his comfort zone of drugs, sex, and violence. Hooray! Savages has all three in spades, easily the best narrative feature he’s made in this millennium. It’s refreshingly unambitious and apolitical, setting out to do nothing more than tell a rollicking tale of a drug deal gone wrong, with some heads rolling along the way.
The story concerns “O” (short for Ophelia, not the first time a Shakespearean character has been boiled down to this single letter), a comely California girl played by Blake Lively, involved in a blissful polyamorous relationship with two dealers named Chon and Ben (Taylor Kitsch and Aaron Johnson, respectively). One is an Afghanistan vet with few qualms about killing his fellow drug traders, the other is a peace-loving hippie who’d rather be distributing solar panels in Indonesia than marijuana in Laguna Beach. Or, as O more bluntly describes the differences between the two young bucks: “Chon fucks. Ben makes love.”
As in most threeway relationships, though, the harmony can’t last forever. Elena, the feisty head of the Mexican cartel, wants to buy out the boys’ booming business. When they refuse, she has her sleazy lackey Lado (a scuzzy, skin-crawly Benicio Del Toro) kidnap O. Also involved — a corrupt DEA agent named Dennis (John Travolta), a wronged criminal (this year’s surprise Oscar nominee Demián Bichir), and a spunky hacker named Spin (Emile Hirsch). Seeing as we’ve already seen a number of Mexicans decapitated via chainsaw, there’s reason to believe one or all of these stars won’t make it out alive.
Savages is no Breaking Bad — its depiction of the drug trade is of the glossy, glamorized Hollywood variety, and that’s fine with me. In a movie like Savages, you’re never quite sure just how nasty and violent things are going to get, but the true brutality is kept at, say, a 7 out of 10. There’s a bit more going on here than the movie really has time to explore, but just enough substance to keep all that lurid pulp grounded in reality. Plus there’s something intriguing and rather ballsy about the bisexual undercurrent running throughout an otherwise standard damsel-in-distress storyline. Savages doesn’t really delve into the implied messiness of this relationship, but when else do you get to see hot up-and-coming stars like Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, and Taylor Kitsch in a male-male-female menage et tois that isn’t played for laughs? Basically never — especially in a major studio release.
Savages is burdened with a major cop out of an ending, using an exasperating bit of movie trickery. But all around, the cast looks like they’re having a good time, and they’re all solid — though Taylor Kitsch is pretty much a non-presence, even compared to Blake Lively. Alas, it matters little, because the true star of Savages is that Oliver Stone-y griminess, the sun-drenched California scenery, the tension of violence that could explode at any moment… or not. Plus, Salma Hayek gets to slap at least two people. It may sound strange to call a movie like Savages old-fashioned, but it’s the kind of real, adult entertainment Hollywood makes less and less of these days, and for that I’m grateful. Those of us 17 and over don’t have a whole lot to choose from this summer. Don’t bring the kids.
And, speaking of not bringing the kids — let’s consider two films, and you tell me which one sounds more light-hearted and entertaining. The first is Savages, the story of an innocuous blonde kidnapped by bloodthirsty drug dealers in order to teach her two stoner boyfriends a lesson. The other is Snow White.
Okay, so did you guess that Snow White was the more charming of the two? Well, you’re mistaken. I’m not talking about the Julia Roberts vehicle Mirror Mirror, of course, which advertised an ill-advised Scarface joke in its trailer, but otherwise seemed reasonably frivolous as a Snow White tale should be. But now there’s Snow White And The Huntsman, the latest in a string of inexplicably dour fairy tales seeking to Lord Of The Rings-ify childhood classics. And who, pray tell, wants that? Snow White And The Huntsman is technically family-friendly, but it’s hard to imagine many kids who wouldn’t be bored to tears throughout.
I know, I know — the original Grimm fairy tale is pretty dark. It was typical of these stories to contain a little bloodshed and an unhappy ending. But this is also a story that features a gang of dwarves, a poison apple, and a chatty mirror, so it’s not exactly Precious, is it? Snow White And The Huntsman is newsworthy these days because of Kristen Stewart’s affair with director Rupert Sanders, which is for the best, since the movie itself contains so little worth discussing.
Setting aside her recent indiscretions, I’m reluctant to jump fully onto the “I Hate Kristen Stewart” bandwagon, because in the right role, she works. (As in: Adventureland.) However, I don’t think she was ever meant to play Snow White, particularly when she’s meant to be “fairer” than a knockout like Charlize Theron. Obviously, this casting was meant to capitalize on her “success” in the Twilight saga, and she’s not exactly bad in the role. It’s just that she carries all that mopey, self-serious Bellabaggage with her, and it’s instantly off-putting. Would Snow White And The Huntsman be better with someone like Jennifer Lawrence starring? Well, yes, but only marginally.
The real problem with Snow White And The Huntsman is that there’s no reason to care. The film looks magnificently expensive (too expensive, really), but this is Snow White, not Game Of Thrones. Do we care about the politics of this kingdom? Can we take them seriously? Not really. And doesn’t giving the Evil Queen youth-sucking abilities defeat the purpose of a story about the perils of aging for beautiful women? As for the titular hunstman, he’s given less to do than you’d expect, played by Chris Hemsworth in full-on Thor-mode (minus any dry sense of humor). The other love interest (“interest” is a strong word) is the prince, played by Sam Claflin. Meanwhile, the seven dwarves, who had such memorable individual personalities in the Disney version, here are just Grumpy, Grumpy, and Grumpy. Charlize Theron is a bit of fun as yet another ice-cold bitch (she’s really cornering that market lately), but ultimately this tale needs a bit more “Heigh Ho” to be enjoyable, or what’s the point?
Snow White And The Huntsman did reasonably big business internationally, but not well enough, hopefully, to spawn many copycats. While not as egregiously odious as last year’s Red Riding Hood, let’s hope these grim fairy tales run out of steam ASAP. Dressing a kiddie movie up in portentous clothing does not an epic make.
And while we’re on the subject of overblown, misbegotten epics, let’s briefly examine spring’s mega-flop John Carter, which thudded into theaters in March with a $73 million tally domestically — not so good when the production costs are reported at $250 million. (What was Disney thinking?) The film was helmed by Andrew Stanton of Finding Nemo and Wall-E, so there was every reason to expect some level of storytelling magic. But the story itself is only fitfully engaging. John Carter travels from Civil War-era America to Mars, meets a princess, and prevents a coup. The tone is similar to the original Star Wars films, a refreshingly earnest throwback. It’s not the self-serious snooze that Snow White And The Huntsman is, but it does star Taylor Kitsch, who seems to be having a charisma problem of late. He’s the latest lad to take a page from the Sam Worthington playbook — a movie star the public never asked for. John Carter doesn’t deserve to be the year’s loudest thud thus far, but what works in animation doesn’t really carry over to live action. Were it a Pixar movie, I think it would’ve gone over much better. Again, here’s a kid-friendly story that didn’t need all that epic production value.
So the lesson to be learned here? Kiddie stories are best left as cartoons. A grownup movie like Savages may not be a rousing success (it only broke even at the box office), but we need more of them anyway. And a distinctly R-rated adult film that only looks family-friendly on the outside? Well, that’s the best of both worlds.
Savages: A brutal good time.
Ted: Worth a cuddle.
John Carter: Unremarkable but inoffensive.
Snow White And The Huntsman: The dullest of them all.