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Summer Retrospective

Why Are the Movies So Bad?

by Jason Comerford

It's frustrating to be critical in a summer such as this one. The studios' output for the past few months has been remarkably subpar, even by lenient standards. But it's also indicative of how the majors will always make their money, while the minors will always be struggling for their shot. But this summer even the minors seem to be gasping for air; of all the good independent movies I've seen this summer, the best have been Croupier, an import from British director Mike Hodges, and Jesus' Son, a Canadian film that was finished two years ago but is just now hitting the American theatre circuit. With O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Nurse Betty coming this fall, I can only hope that the American independents start to regain their footing.

It's overly indicative of the summer at hand when the first major film released for the season -- Gladiator -- is turning out to be one of the better films of the year. Ridley Scott's films have run hot-and-cold with me; for the life of me I still can't understand what the big deal about Blade Runner is, but Alien is looking better and better with time. With Gladiator, Scott found a remarkable way to marry his European filmic sensibilities to a story without overwhelming himself. The film, which I saw twice, still leaves a resonant series of beautiful imagery with me that, for once, was indicative of character and emotion rather than pure sensation. What I found most impressive and refreshing about the film was how Scott treated Maximus (Russell Crowe), as a man driven by an overpowering love for his family. Note how the repeated use of key images -- Maximus' hand gliding over the wheat that he's cultivated, shots of his family, et al -- are used to signify his yearning to return to his home, without becoming cloying and saccharine; his eye for such skillful detail is at its peak here. Hans Zimmer's score was as effective as much else in the film, matching and supplementing Scott's visual palette with a selection of surprisingly low-key instrumentations and subtle thematics. Some of the action cues were monotonous, but Zimmer was wise enough to concentrate largely on the emotional heft that Maximus' story provided.

Mission: Impossible 2 had the unpleasant taste of an ego out of control -- I lost count of how many times Tom Cruise's photogenically shaggy mop of hair flipped around his head in slow-motion. The director, John Woo, is noted for turning violence into an exquisite dance of terror, and coming to America has slowly turned Woo's sensibilities against themselves. The action in the film has Woo's extravagance, but little of the edginess that made The Killer and Hard-Boiled so unforgettable. Those films were built upon a simple foundation of melodrama that was accelerated into tragic/comic proportions; Robert Towne's script tries to accomplish the same thing, but it ends up being overly satisfied with its own cleverness without having much to be clever about. The film felt smug and contrived, with few surprises and a handful of clever lines glossing over the fact that it was much ado about very little. Hans Zimmer's score was pretty much what you'd expect -- a hodgepodge of his percussive electronic/orchestral action style with the "novelty" of Latin guitar writing and solo vocalizing by Lisa Gerrard. I'm not a terribly huge fan of the whole Latin music explosion to begin with, and Zimmer's score came across as gimmicky more than anything else.

Another earlier summer release, Dinosaur, was even more dependent upon its score to provide impact, and while James Newton Howard's score was no groundbreaker, it at least made the film's laughably lame dialogue palatable. The film had a spectacular opening sequence, with one of Howard's best cues in years ("The Egg Travels"), but as soon as these animals opened their mouths, the energy generated started to quickly drain away. The film's plot was culled from everything from The Lion King to The Land Before Time, and while it moved quickly enough, there was a dire lack of freshness and appeal. I wasn't quite sure where the African choral/percussion effects were coming from (there's not much of a defined ethnocentricity to the film's characters and action), but they worked, just the same. Howard is a composer whose textural and melodic gifts are underutilized, but with Dinosaur he seemed to have found an ample amount of leeway to exercise his skills.

The Patriot, The Perfect Storm, X-Men, and What Lies Beneath I've already discussed at length in these columns, so I'll move on to Hollow Man. I'm a fan of Paul Verhoeven's efforts, particularly the hilarious satire inherent in RoboCop and Starship Troopers, but Verhoeven, like Wolfgang Petersen, is frustratingly hit-and-miss. Like so many directors, he's a technical virtuoso whose slick, high-energy style is instantly recognizable, but like so many directors, his storytelling senses are often at odds with the script at hand. Hollow Man's screenplay, by Andrew Marlowe, misses a lot of great opportunities to play with the thematic possibilities of invisibility in today's society, opting instead to turn itself into a bait-and-chase horror film in its final third. There's a hint of the delicious kinkiness that marked Verhoeven's early Dutch films like Keetjie Tippel and Turkish Delight, with Kevin Bacon's one-note mad-scientist playing sexual cat-and-mouse games with co-workers and neighbors, but the film cops out before it can really explore the dark side of sexual temptation. Jerry Goldsmith's score, along these lines, has an appropriate echo of the psychosexual strains of Basic Instinct, and while I didn't find it a particularly intriguing or well-spotted score, it still has Goldsmith's trademark intellectualism, which is, as always, a great match for Verhoeven's slinky rhythms. And while the film's finale was nothing new, it at least afforded Goldsmith the opportunity to write extended action/chase cues that are some of his more energetic and enthusiastic compositions of late.

After Hollow Man, which was at least watchable, came Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys, a frustrating film if there ever was one. Eastwood is a love-him-or-hate-him performer; like Harrison Ford, he almost always plays a variant of his usual onscreen persona. But as a director, his leisurely rhythms are well-suited to the Westerns and dramas that he typically helms. Space Cowboys is ostensibly Grumpy Old Men In Space, but Eastwood can't seem to find the proper comic timing for the film. Each scene is so ponderously paced that it's almost as big a chore to sit through as Meet Joe Black. There are plenty of fine performances, with Marcia Gay Harden and Tommy Lee Jones putting in some of the best work they've done in years, but they're negated by Eastwood's irritatingly anemic pacing. Lennie Niehaus' score falls into the same trap; while Niehaus' music for Eastwood's previous films has been refreshingly restrained, it's so restrained in Space Cowboys that it leaves no impact. There are plenty of soft ensemble and orchestral cues, but there's no energy or spirit to them -- it feels like elevator music plopped down into the middle of a space opera. I've always been an admirer of Eastwood's directorial desire to trust the audience's intelligence, but in Space Cowboys every emotional point is so understated that it leaves a sense of vague unease rather than becoming the gripping powerhouse that the story had the potential of becoming. Niehaus, alas, is left to follow the same path, and the score leaves you feeling like you've heard merely the beginning of something interesting.

I elected not to see The Nutty Professor II; the giant hamster anally raping a man (in the previews, no less) was more than enough for me. So I saw Coyote Ugly, a critic-proof movie if there ever was one. Much derision is directed towards uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, but the man is unquestionably very smart about the films that he helps create; they always do exactly what they promise, and little else. Coyote Ugly is basically porn VH-1 style, a solid 90 minutes of feminine eye candy with generous helpings of jokes and a laughable excuse for characters and plot. Every once in a while there's a nice glimmer of something deeper. One scene has ingenue Violet (Piper Perabo) standing in front of a mirror, wearing a sexy new dress, and muttering, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned." It's a pretty clever way to encapsulate the film's own appeal: we may feel guilty, but it sure is a fun ride. I also found the film's attitude towards female sexuality interesting -- it presents aggressive feminine power as something distinctively masculine, what with the rough-and-tumble characters played by Maria Bello and Bridget Moynahan. I'm not sure if the if-you-can't-lick-em-join-em message inherent in the film is palatable to women or not (my sister, who saw the movie twice, didn't seem to mind it), but at the very least, it was something slightly different. Musically, the film provided about what you'd expect as well: composer Trevor Horn's cues were of the standard string-and-synth romantic mold, no better or worse than any given handful of music written for similar scenes. Generic it was, yes, but Horn accomplished what he was supposed to do.

In retrospect, so many of the films released this summer are like Coyote Ugly, in that they require little in the way of creativity or artistic ingenuity to accomplish what they're expected to. For composers, as well as general moviegoers, this is a frustrating trend, one that is also bound to continue on into the future. Filmmakers have always rallied against the impersonal nature of many studio-produced films. So while it's best to take many films for what they are, it's always good to understand that many are a means to a creative end.

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