We'll see if my schedule allows me to do a compressive 'end of summer' box office wrap-up, but since summer 2010 doesn't officially end until September third, I figure I've got time. But for now, here is a rundown of the various scenes, performances, moments, and miscues that defined the summer just past. Because sometimes, discussing the 'parts' is more fun than discussing the 'whole'. I'll try to avoid divulging plot twists and the like, but consider this a SPOILER WARNING.
Funniest moment of the summer: the demonstration goes horribly wrong in Splice. No fair spoiling it here, but there's a moment about halfway through the otherwise taut and terrific sci-fi horror picture where Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are giving a corporate presentation regarding their recent scientific endeavors. Let's just say it's easily the most outrageously funny scene of this nature since ED-209 told that unlucky executive to put down the gun in Robocop.
Best moment in a bad film: The action climax of The Last Airbender
There are no more heartbreaking disappointment this summer than watching M. Night Shyamalan, the man who made two of the best films of the last fifteen years (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable), completely and utterly fall apart in every way. But even in this horribly-acted, poorly paced, and terribly-written tragedy, there were those moments when you realize what M. Night Shyamalan might have been able to deliver if he was willing to play director-for-hire on any other action picture. Long, fluid takes of hundreds of warriors throwing supernatural weapons and magic at each other, with every bit of it crystal clear and every beat easy to understand: this is the stuff of real movie magic. As bad as the film is, the action finale of The Last Airbender is a bravura action sequence that only makes the movie's failure that much more unfortunate. Ironically for a man who was once destined to be the next Spielberg/Lucas, I today speak of Shyamalan in the vein of Luke Skywalker and Padmé Amidala trying to convince people that Anakin Skywalker still has 'some good in him'.
Most astonishingly inept technical choice: Salt's theme song sing-along.
I've written about this elsewhere, but there was no more head-slappingly boneheaded decision this year by a filmmaker then whomever chose to have a orchestral theme song for the Angelina Jolie spy thriller that literally has singers chanting 'Salt! Salt! Salt!' when Jolie goes into action mode. When crafting a dark and violent spy thriller, it's best not to have your audience giggling to themselves during major action sequences and/or dramatic moments.
Most surprising social relevance in a bad movie: Jonah Hex vs. right-wing terrorists.
Sure, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was a giant Iraq war parable, which would have been a lot ballsier had the film been made in 2003, but the big flop of the summer took on a surprising potency due to its timely storyline. In short, the film concerns a psychotic former-Confederate soldier who plots to massacre to US government to avenge the South's defeat and/or inspire the populace to turn against the government that failed to protect them from slaughter. Whether it was an intentional commentary on Tim McVeigh and/or the worst fears of a (theoretically) militant Tea Party, watching John Malkovich's Colonel Turnbell preach about restoring American values while dispatching suicide bombers and weapons of mass destruction against American civilians was not a little bit chilling.
"I've got a bad feeling about this": Whiplash attacks race track in Iron Man 2 For the first thirty-five minutes or so, the Iron Man sequel is a relatively straight-laced affair. Sure it has much of the same sardonic humor that the original film had, but it takes its character and its world seriously. Alas, at the end of the first act, the film shows off its kid-friendly colors. As Tony Stark races around, the murderous Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) unleashes his laser whips and starts attacking the cars on the track. And hilarity ensues? This seemingly chilling bit of business, with a random terrorist unleashing hell and (theoretically) murdering the occupants of every other car on the track, is shot and edited like a broadly comic action scene, with the attack intercut with slapstick humor and bits of Pepper Potts and Stark's butler racing around the track trying to get Tony his Iron Man outfit. The scene's obnoxiously goofy tone and the film's refusal to confirm a body count amidst the carnage was a telling sign that the film intended to be more like Batman & Robin than The Dark Knight.
Subtle heartbreak: Ree has her dreams dashed in Winter's Bone.
Jennifer Lawrence will probably get a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her commandingly subtle work in Debra Grannick's terrific rural-poverty thriller (and if there's any justice, John Hawkes will get a Supporting Actor nod too). Like Gabourey Sidibe's turn in Precious last year, it's an interior piece of acting, with no showy moments or big speeches. And the film's best scene is one merely of Lawrence reacting as the ROTC recruiter empathetically but bluntly explains to her that she won't be able to take her younger siblings with her to Basic Training. Since her father is MIA and her mother is basically catatonic, it is immediately apparent that Ree's lone ambition, her only real escape from her dirt-poor existence, is merely a pipe dream. In those brief moments, we see a young girl's last bit of hope utterly squashed.
Worst tonal inconsistency: the opening moments of MacGruber.
MacGruber is an amusing send-up of 80s and 90s action pictures, with its core flaw being that it relies too much on its lead character's inherent funniness for its humor (in that sense, it's closer to the mediocre Austin Powers sequels than the masterpiece original). But the opening moments seem out of another movie entirely, as the lead villain (an underused Val Kilmer) attacks an army convoy and steals a weapon of mass destruction. We only see the aftermath, with fire and debris, dead soldiers covered in blood and dirt, and a lone survivor begging for his life before being executed at point blank range. It's not that the scene isn't funny (it's not supposed to be), but that the film never again takes its violence or its narrative that seriously again, to the film's detriment.
Surefire Awards Clip: Jackie Chan confesses his sin in The Karate Kid. With all the understandable complaining about reboots and remakes, it does well to remember that one of the better mainstream films of the summer was an 80s remake. Of course, the further irony is that said remake was one of the only real character-driven dramas in multiplexes over the last four months. While the film was derided upon its announcement, it shocked the hell out of everyone by being really good, with solid acting, smart writing, and existing as a terrifically entertaining motion picture in its own right (it was arguably the only summer film that based its marketing campaign around promising a quality movie). But the biggest joy was seeing the legendary Jackie Chan take the iconic role of 'not-Mr. Miyagi' and run with it. Fashioning a darker and more introspective variation on the role that defined Pat Morita, Mr. Han was a rare chance to see Jackie Chan in a straight-up dramatic role in an American film. His initial fight scene is wonderful, as he basically tricks his assailants into beating themselves up. But his 'big scene' comes at the end of the second act, when the morose and tortured Mr. Han finally confesses to young Dre (a winning Jaden Smith) what haunts him so. It's a prototypical 'big moment', but its so raw and uncompromising, and Dre's reaction to it is so potent, that the scene exceeds its potential for cliche. If Sony is willing to spend the money, Jackie Chan may end up with his first Oscar nomination.
Most emotionally-draining moment: the entire last reel of Toy Story 3 I wish I could pick something more unexpected or original, but I'd just be lying and/or being different for the sake of being different. For the second year in a row, Pixar ends the summer with the best film of the year, with no clear challengers on the horizon. As both the end of their legendary Toy Story franchise, and the end of their unofficial 'trilogy of death/rebirth' (Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3), Pixar doesn't pull punches or find a way to give audiences the ending that they probably would have preferred. A mother comes to terms with the fact that her son is leaving her for college. A young boy realizes as he gives away his toys that he is truly leaving childhood behind. By witnessing their acceptance of their destinies, a favorite toy realizes that he must let go of the one relationship that has defined him for the sake of his fellow toys, who have truly become his family. It's such a stark moment of closure and finality, ending on the same sky-blue image that started Toy Story 15 years ago, that the filmmakers basically had to add a credit cookie to prevent audiences from driving home in a tear-stained funk. Hell, I'm watering up just typing this.
That's all for this summer. Oh, and in case you're wondering, I honestly couldn't think of a moment in Inception that truly jumped out at me. The film is a wonderful technical exercise/brain teaser, but even the zero-gravity hallway fight scene failed to register on any level other than admiration of how it was created. It's a darn good film, but it's certainly a movie where the whole is superior to the sum of its parts. If you're so inclined, here is last summer's 'Moments That Mattered' article. Hopefully I'll have a financial analysis in the next week, but until then, take care, please comment, and keep reading.