Monday, July 27, 2009

Summer Movie Roundup

By Elise Nakhnikian

Will Smith is MIA this month, but who’s had time to miss him? Hollywood has already rolled out enough would-be blockbusters this summer to feed a whole decade’s worth of Independence Day weekends.

I thought Brüno was disappointing, though it had its moments. But there are plenty of other summer movies still playing that are worth checking out.

My favorite is Public Enemies, director and cowriter Michael Mann’s take on the last few days of John Dillinger. Like the main character of Mann’s first feature, Thief, Dillinger is a professional thief recently sprung from a long prison term and hungry to make up for lost time. “What do you want?” asks the girl Dillinger woos with his usual hooded intensity. “Everything – right now,” he tells her.

Shooting with digital video and handheld cameras and saturating the soundtrack with the same heavy, gorgeous chords he used in Last of the Mohicans, Mann imbues the beautifully shot story with its main character’s sense of urgency: everything feels as if it’s happening right now.

Johnny Depp’s Dillinger is an honorable thief. He seems not only, as he puts it, tougher, smarter, and faster than just about anyone else but also more loyal and somehow more authentic. Mann has always been fascinated by American crime – the cops as well as the criminals. As in Heat and Miami Vice, he spends time here on both sides of the law, developing subplots about the rise of the FBI under Herbert Hoover (a stiff Billy Crudup) and the hunting of Dillinger by Agent Melvin Purvis (the always intense Christian Bale). The last shot of the movie belongs to a laconic agent who helped hunt Dillinger down, and whose words to Dillinger’s girlfriend reveal him to be a man of principle and a worthy foe.

Mann’s vision of male honor and virility may be a little anachronistic – a daydream from a time gone by – but he makes his romanticized vision feel as real as your morning coffee.

The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's clear-eyed portrait of an Army sergeant who disarms bombs in Iraq, is another excellent movie about a tough guy who chooses to put himself in harm’s way. Bigelow knows how to shoot a violent confrontation or a standoff to maximize the suspense. But this movie’s real power flows from the courage and grit of the people involved, and the way we get to know and care about them. (I have to believe Bigelow deserves the props for that, since writer Mark Boal’s only other credit is for the preachy and lugubrious In the Valley of Elah.)

Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) doesn’t talk much, but by the end of this movie, you know what makes him tick and you sincerely admire his skill and commitment. You also get to know the other men in his squad, and when James comes back to the States and wanders the aisles of a grocery store, the mellow Muzak and row upon row of cereals looking and sounding almost as alien to us as they must to him, you realize how well Bigelow has recreated the feel of a guerilla war zone. The Hurt Locker isn’t overtly political, but its quiet realism speaks clearly, reminding us not to forget the people who risk their lives every day in our names in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Hurt Locker should be required viewing for anyone who has seen Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. This relentlessly militaristic sequel is just another cog in the war machine that’s gobbling up most of our national resources and far too many of our young men and women. Kind of like one of the rampaging transformers from the movie, come to think of it – the one that constructs itself by sucking in every other machine in sight.

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is a big pop culture lollipop for little kids and their parents. An animated valentine to family values, it’s full of cute baby animals and doting parents, including Manny the mammoth (Ray Romano) and his mate Ellie (Queen Latifah). They’re followed by the usual motley crew of sidekicks – including Scrat, the squirrel whose desperate pursuit of an elusive nut is woven through the plot like a comic ballet. The animation is beautifully done, and 3-D makes it pop even more. During the end credits at the screening I went to, several kids sidled right up to the screen like magnets to a refrigerator, drawn to the cheery, childlike drawings that seemed to float in front of it.

If Ice Age is family entertainment candy, Pixar’s Up is a layer cake from a very good bakery: lighter and more complex, but still with that mass-produced sheen. It starts out beautifully, with an interesting setup, likeable characters, and a masterful montage of a couple’s lifelong love story. But, as in last year’s WALL-E, Pixar’s scriptwriters seem to run out of creative steam in the second half of the movie, reverting to a much more conventional, less engaging story. It’s definitely worth seeing, though. The visuals are always arresting, kids love the talking dogs, and mom and dad shouldn’t miss that marriage montage.

For bigger kids, there’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The Harry Potter movies could never quite reproduce the intensity of J.K. Rowling’s prose or the density of detail that brought Harry’s world so vividly to life – not to mention Rowling’s sly sense of humor. They got much better and less sanitized after director Chris Columbus was replaced, but the later installments lean a little too far in the other direction, often feeling too solemn or self-important. It doesn’t help that Daniel Radcliffe in the title role and Emma Watson in the key supporting role of Hermione have too little range to pull you in – though the adult cast is always a delight, and Rupert Grint is a treat as Harry’s other best friend, Ron.

Director David Yates makes The Half-Blood Prince as good as any of the Potter movies yet, with truly menacing bad guys and teenage love pangs that will make you tear up one minute and laugh the next. But too many sequences feel too long and somber, and the meticulous art direction and CGI effects keep upstaging the actors, making the film lose that grip on the everyday that is the bedrock of Rowling’s series. Get that right and Harry’s world is truly amazing. Leave it out and all you’ve got is another special effects movie – a better than average one, granted, but nothing magical.

If you’re looking for a purely entertaining action movie, try The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, a fast-paced, well-acted update of the story of a hijacked subway train featuring John Travolta as a convincingly psychotic bad guy and Denzel Washington as a flawed hero.

And if it’s a date movie you want, The Proposal or (500) Days of Summer are both perfectly adequate. I actually liked The Proposal a little better, though it’s more formulaic. It’s hard not to root for Sandra Bullock or Ryan Reynolds, even if there’s hardly a surprise or a genuine moment to be found in the movie.

Summer’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt is pretty irresistible too, but the object of his character’s unrequited obsession, Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, is so underdeveloped that the movie feels repetitive at just 95 minutes. What’s more, some of the “interesting” stuff thrown in by director Mark Webb, whose background is in music videos, just distracts from Tom’s feelings rather than illuminating them.

I’m out of room, so let me just add that The Hangover, an imaginative and funny road movie about a bachelor party gone awry, has been a breakout hit this summer and deserves it.

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