posted 2012-09-21 18:41:25

Fun in the Sun and in the Cineplex

The movies of summer 2012

Amal Abbass

Staff Writer

Summertime is known as the season of the popcorn flick, a Transformers-esque fare that involves a big CGI budget and a crash-and-bang action sequence in every other scene. Some would rather stay home and watch HBO than indulge in such mindless entertainment, but summer movie haters are missing out on a diverse, fun and sometimes excellent crop of films.

This summer, little-known child actors got more attention than marquee names. Preteens Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward reminded audiences of the pleasures of young love in Moonrise Kingdom, but 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis’ performance in indie darling Beasts of the Southern Wild may net her an Oscar nomination.

Wallis plays Hushpuppy, a youngster who lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a bayou community on the brink of extinction. Part magical realism and part coming-of-age tale, the film has a majestic soundtrack and vividly rendered setting—the shots of the flooded community after a destructive storm are particularly stirring, calling to mind the eerie post-Katrina images of a desolate New Orleans. But the film’s greatest asset is Wallis, who’d never acted prior to Beasts. With little more than a look, she conveys all of the curiosity, suffering, hope and strength of a young girl trying to navigate a changing world. It is impossible not to be moved by Wallis’s performance, one of the summer’s best.

Beasts was an indie success story, but summertime is synonymous with superhero movies, and The Amazing Spider-Man couldn’t surpass the likes of The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises in terms of quality or box-office gross. Perhaps some were turned off by how superfluous another Spider-Man movie feels—Tobey Maguire’s Spidey franchise is barely cold, after all. One could rightly argue that Hollywood spends too much time “rebooting” and “reimagining” the old instead of giving a voice to the new. However, The Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t suffer from treading through the familiar Peter Parker story.

Rather, it’s the villain that does the film harm. By now we know that the best villains aren’t CGI’d creatures, they’re actual people (think the Joker or Darth Vader). Rhys Ifans’ Lizard is neither scary nor particularly charismatic, and he certainly doesn’t live up to his predecessor, Willem Defoe’s Green Goblin. What carries the film instead is the sweet on-screen magnetism between real-life couple Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.

Spider-Man famously swings his way through Manhattan’s skyline, and it’s no surprise that our fair city served as the setting for many other films this summer. From the 99 percent (Red Hook Summer) to the 1 percent (Cosmopolis), grad students (Lola Versus) to bike messengers (Premium Rush), New Yorkers got their on-screen due.

The most charming of them all? Julie Delpy, who wrote, directed and starred in her culture-clash comedy 2 Days in New York. Playing frazzled mother and girlfriend Marion, who must balance a visit from her wacky French family with the dynamics of her relationship with boyfriend Mingus (Chris Rock), Delpy perfects the Woody Allen-esque neurotic yet lovable lead. The film is not without its flaws—a gimmick involving a vengeful pigeon doesn’t quite work—but Rock riffs funnily to a cardboard Obama cutout, and Delpy mines the politics of relationships and cultural differences for sweet comedy. And, of course, Deply capitalizes on the city setting from testy neighbors to an absurdly loud door buzzer. The film is every bit as New York as Annie Hall.

While Delpy played off of the “visit from the parents” trope, Wes Anderson worked within the tradition of the childhood summertime quest à la Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, charming audiences and critics with Moonrise Kingdom. The comedy follows two very young lovers who escape the clutches of their various handlers and embark on a romantic adventure. Exploring the optimism of youth and the cynicism of adulthood, Anderson pulls funny and poignant performances out of stars young and old, including Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Bill Murray as the burdened adults.

Some may not buy Anderson’s absurdist, over-the-top worldview, but surrounded by such blue grown-ups, why wouldn’t you want to? The director captures your imagination with surreal, appealing details in the children’s world. A sky-high tree-house that Norton’s Scoutmaster Ward’s scouts build typifies this. Ward declares its height ridiculous and tells them to bring it down, but the boys refuse to lower their expectations, however unrealistic. Buoyed by the young actors’ strong performances and aided by stunning cinematography and attention to detail, Anderson makes even the most jaded adult want to climb into that tree- house.

Ultimately, it’s hard to discuss summer’s biggest films without including The Dark Knight Rises. The tragedy in Colorado did little to deter its popularity; over Labor Day weekend, it became the 11th film ever to gross $1 billion-plus.

As is often the case with Christopher Nolan films, the movie is overstuffed with plot, and runs a good half-hour too long. Some of the new characters fall flat: love interest Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) isn’t as charming as she should be; Joseph Gordon-Levitt is always appealing, but, like Ellen Page’s character in Inception, he’s saddled with too much exposition; and Tom Hardy’s impressive physicality can’t elevate Bane into the canon of great villains.

Despite those missteps, Nolan expertly crafts a dark, believable Gotham, and his willingness to tackle big themes in blockbuster form is admirable. His Batman films subvert the idea that big- budget pictures are escapist fun. Whatever your interpretation of what Nolan means to say about revolutionaries and anarchists, his aim is clearly to provoke deeper thought about who our heroes are and how our society operates, not discourage such thought.

As the sun sets on the Batman franchise—until the inevitable reboot, that is—summertime also comes to an end. Stars like Joaquin Phoenix and Ben Affleck are already garnering Oscar buzz on the heels of the Toronto Film Festival (for The Master and Argo, respectively). Next the New York Film Festival, kicking off Sept. 28, ups the ante with a slew of highly anticipated fall releases. As the weather cools down and the Oscar race heats up, this summer’s movies—unlike your warm weather fling—shouldn’t be forgotten.