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The Summer of My Discontent (summer movies, 2001)

by Jerry Salisbury

Winter may be the season of Billy's discontent, but far and away, the summer of 2001 has been mine. Never in recent memory can I recall being teased and taunted with such promise, only to be mercilessly crushed amidst the big money, low brainpower Hollywood money machine. Granted, the summer movie season, which now seems to begin shortly after Easter, is not supposed to be full of the heavy handed, award expectant dramatic faire of the fall and winter season, but it is expected to deliver more than the one shot and gone, brainless drivel that populated this year's landscape. Oh how I yearn for the not so distant past where we given movies that were loud, fun, playful, and made us remember the multi-faceted magic that the movies can hold. Producers, directors and film makers have whored themselves to the almighty dollar, forsaking intelligent fun for empty flash and taunting marketing campaigns which lure audiences like thirsting lemmings into the theater, then once they have their money, fail to deliver on nearly every level. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is the A-list of stars (this year's batch included Ben Affleck, Angelina Jolie, Michael Douglas, John Travolta, and The Score threesome of Norton, DeNiro and Brando) who have given themselves to these projects then watched as their work crumbles amidst a complete lack of intellectual support. From historical events to video game adaptations to dream casts, the summer of 2001 spanned the spectrum of wasted potential with a gleefully frightening ease. In a summer that began with such anticipation, the lingering feeling now that it's passed is one of disappointment at the wasteland and carcasses of potential that lie in its wake.

There were the blockbusters that shot out of the gate then fizzled (Pearl Harbor, Planet of The Apes, Tomb Raider) based on initial interest, the ones that never got going, and the ones that should have just never been made. Amidst this all, there were flickering moments of what could have been (the magic of Moulin Rouge, the intelligent playful spirit of Shrek, and the guilty action packed joyride of The Mummy Returns) but for every one of these, there were the remaining films, which cluttered the multiplexes and doused the potential with a flood of mediocrity. So, without further adieu, my analysis of the good, the bad, and the ugly (emphasis on the last two) of the summer of my discontent.

(Summer movies include all films released (and of course viewed by me) from May 1st, 2001 through August 31st, 2001.)

You Dropped the Bomb on Me -- The summer movie season is always one filled with great hope, potential and expectation. It is also a time when most people will venture indoors because of either more free time, or just an escape from the heat and hectic nature of life. Consequently, studios usually save their light-hearted heavy hitters for this time on the calendar. The problem in recent years has been the fact that the films have consistently been heavy on the bang, and low on the brains, seeking to capitalize on a name, whether it is through recognition or star power, and failing to deliver once the audience is drawn in. The audience is the one who suffers, because the prevailing feeling is one of disappointment. In the long run, I can only hope that Pavlovian style learning will take place, and that people will learn from sub par quality of what is out there, and hold out for something better. That being said, the summer of 2001, starting strong with The Mummy Returns (see below) began to crash faster than the bombs on Pearl Harbor, and ultimately ended up marooned on an island of ineptitude. Probably the most anticipated movie of the summer, if not the year, was the big-budget version of what is now the second worst day in American history. Pearl Harbor was not the bomb that it could have been, but was also not the blockbuster that it should have. Michael Bay, he of the quick edit and explosion fetish, fumbled the ball on this one. In what could have been a film to build a room full of awards for, Bay instead went for the easy route of casting big names and pretty faces in a story straight out of every carbon copy epic layout ever done. The problem was that they had all been done before, and seeing them again, with the over written script, predictable situations, and laborious delivery, could not overcome one stunning 25 minute sequence that should have anchored the film, instead showing us what could have been. From the "been there, done that category" came the anticipated Tim Burton take on Planet of The Apes. Hopes were high, as were the chances of failure, in the dark master's retelling of the 1970s cult classic. If anyone could bring out the potential in this film, it was Burton, who did wonders with the first Batman (the best of the bunch), Edward Scissorhands and his Sleepy Hollow retelling. But alas, he too fell prey to conventional movie tricks of copying the original and failing, miserably, to have a script with even a modicum of intelligence. While there we just enough moments to keep it mildly entertaining, it was another example of not being as good as it could have been. Finally, for cinephiles of the summer, the hope for savior lay in the very capable hands of Steven Spielberg (filtered through, and collaborated, posthumously with Stanley Kubrick) and his contribution, A.I.. By conversing with the master before his death, and securing Law and Osment, the hot young stars of the moment, everything was in place for this to be a memorable, surreal journey into the world of the future. Unfortunately, Spielberg fell back on his previous successes, tainting Kubrick's darker more sensual vision in favor of lighter family faire. The film wastes some beautiful sets, and a wonderful performance from Law, in lieu of something that would hopefully appeal to the masses. What it does, is alienate the few who flocked to this film to escape the usual faire, and be taken on yet another journey through Kubrick's mind, with one of Hollywood's greatest storytellers at the helm.

The rise in popularity of the realism-based video game bred a whole new market ripe for exploitation by the money hungry beasts of Tinseltown. This year's faire ranged from convoluted but impressive; to downright hard to watch, showing that these ideas may run their course, before the race ever began. In Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, animation is taken to new levels, but the writers and directors didn't know when to stop. By giving us too much, we are drowned amidst a story that is confusing at best, in the hopes that the visions and effects would be so mind-blowing that we wouldn't care that we could barely understand what was going on. However no film embodied everything wrong with summer movies more than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. This film had everything going for it, a major star, a familiar story (at least amidst its target audience), a big budget, some flashy effects, a big name director, and many directions to go. But as it can be with the best-laid plans, this one went so far astray that the most detailed maps in the world could not have navigated it out. First off, was the story, a mishmash of ideas, held together by transition scenes mirroring a video game. Ideas were started and never finished, characters were introduced but never expanded upon, and the effects were misused, in favor of just shaking the camera around a lot so that it was unclear what was happening, but it sure did sound bad. Then was the script, which held a few one-liners tipped off in the previews, but otherwise became painfully inept and empty. Movies like this are made to introduce people to the game, and satiate those already familiar with it, this one only made me wish I were watching someone play it, rather than this film.

It is sad these days to see what is done with the great ideas and big budgets being doled out like there was no tomorrow. Someone really needs to give Hollywood an intellectual wake up call, and show that you can make a film which is flashy, which large and differing groups can relate to, and most of all that doesn't insult the intelligence of those seeking to escape the over abundance of ignorance already prevalent in today's society. Granted, I don't expect the world of summer films, my mindset is shifted from serious to somewhat fun during this time of year. But I do expect there to be something that doesn't take my presence for granted and fail to deliver on any level at all. Originality has taken a vacation, but I only hope it comes back soon, else I may just stay home until Halloween.

Do That To Me One More Time -- Usually, summer is the time when things tend to become a bit repetitive or familiar to us, either in the form of translations from other media (as shown above) or in a sequel. The influx of sequels of the past years has mirrored the declination of quality over the past few years. Some filmmakers just do not know when to let a good thing die. Very few have figured out the key to making a successful sequel is not to carbon copy the first in hopes of making a quick buck on recognition then running off with the ill-gotten booty, but rather to take an existing idea and expand on a new aspect of it. The summer of 2001 reflected nearly every aspect of what can be good and bad about revisiting familiar ideas.

The examples of the good sandwiched the mass amounts of bad when it came to the second look around. Starting things off with great promise was The Mummy Returns, a playful, action-packed joyride back through the ages. The makers took the initial idea and premise from the first film and took it in new directions, but maintaining the sharp-witted dialogue and fun-loving spirit which made the first film one of the surprise successes of the summer of 1999. Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo and Oded Fehr returned for familiarity, while professional wrestler The Rock was brought in for new blood and name recognition. Granted, his appearance was brief, and I felt a little cheated I guess (if you can feel cheated by the lack of screen time for a star of an activity that has bred its own unofficial sub-genre of bad movies) but the overall prevailing mood of the movie made that fact forgivable. Closing out the season was American Pie 2, which based its second go around on the recognition of characters and a new perspective on previously introduced material. The second slice brings back all of the characters that we related to, laughed at, laughed with, and ultimately embraced. With the entire nucleus, including writers, directors and producers in tact, the film then ventured off into different territory, maintaining its familiar feel, but infusing enough originality to stop it from seeming like leftovers. But for all the success of these two, the failures stood out more glaringly, because of either expectation, or past triumphs.

In Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Kevin Smith closes out his View Askew series of films with a loud whimper, rather than the intellectually smarty pants guffaw that embodied the previous films in this series. When it hit, it was dead-on, as is usual with Smith's work, but when it misses, it nearly drags the film down into the muck of the very media, which it spoofs. Jay and Silent Bob's journey across America to claim their financial gain from a movie being made about them, is at times too forced, too crude, and too clever for its own good. While this wasn't a complete failure, expectation based on past faire was very high, and this one missed more because of coming in far under where it should have. Finally, bringing up the rear in more ways than one was Jurassic Park 3, the sequel that never should have been. After the failure of the Spielberg-helmed Lost World (one of his only cinematic failures in my eyes) it is a wonder why this film was even necessary. There were no unanswered questions, curiosities or anything of substance to make audiences want another. A sequel should exist for one of these reasons, along with exploration of new territory. The return to island of the first film brings only 92 minutes of torture, and not from the dinosaurs. With a poorly written script, bad acting, effects that have been done before and no discernible purpose for existence, JP3 represented all that is wrong, and without a wake up call of creativity, will continue to be wrong with sequels. While they do exist to attempt to resuscitate along with capitalize, sequels, like recent movies in general, seem to exist more to bring in as much money as possible in a short amount of time, leaving sensibility and intelligence in their wake. I can only hope that the continued failure of these ventures will make writers, directors, producers and anyone involved in these projects to either take another look at their current projects, or put more effort into the ones that are developing. I can only hope this for the sake of all that is good and right in cinema.

Top 5

Fortunately, there were moments of savior amongst the masses of torture, which may a fleeting few of the summer's moments, worth sitting through in the theater. It was a bit difficult to come up with 5, but these were indeed the only shining moments in the 4 months of darkness.

Note: It is pure coincidence that 4 of the 5 movies listed here are directly related (either in title, or subject matter) to America. This list was done before September 11th, but does show a bit of irony in these times of resurging patriotism.

Moulin Rouge - Baz Luhrmann's pseudo-modern look at the free-spirited lives and loves is a stunning and beautiful visualization of pure emotion put to music. Captivating scenery, catchy songs, and a simple story, along with memorable performances from Nicole Kidman and Jim Broadbent make this one that truly must be seen and heard to be truly appreciated. - This documentary of the rise and fall of two visionaries blinded by dollar signs is a true and relevant representation of the new American dream. This film is hardwired into the conscious soul of anyone with a dream, and should be seen by those instinctual dreamers who look before they leap.

America's Sweethearts - Oh what fun it is when Hollywood turns its keen eye upon itself. This tale of publicity, love and image was dead-on sharp and suitably fluffy when it needed to be. With Crystal, Cusack, Jones and Roberts having fun playing and mocking themselves, this one shows how much fun movies can be and still have a brain.

American Pie 2 - Proving that sequels can work, this second time around with the overly hormonal crew from the first film broke the sophomore curse by maintaining its spirit and humor from the first film while sprinkling in enough doses of originality to make it just as much as the first slice.

American Outlaws - Historical relevance and accuracy aside, this ride through yet another of the many tales of Jesse James was a fun one. Filled with sharp one liners, equal doses of action and dialogue, and a story that keeps things simple, this one was a true escape from the overblown, overdone and tired Hollywood stereotypes. Western fans who love the spirit of the old films, and don't nitpick on details will enjoy this one.

Bottom 5

Just as it was fairly difficult to come up with 5 movies for my top ones, it was concurrently just as difficult to limit this list to only 5. However, I narrowed and selected films that were not only bad, but that represented the spectrum of what was wrong. These are in no particular order, since they were all universally putrid in their own inimitable way.

One Night At McCool's - A poorly miscast, poorly written, and poorly executed waste of an all-star cast. Attempting to capitalize on the humor and appeal of There's Something About Mary, Douglas, Dillon, Tyler and Reiser have sullied their images permanently in this tale of a femme fatale and the idiotic men who fall for her.

Swordfish - This is what happens when you put explosions, a cast, and a good cinematographer in the hands of a director who I wouldn't let near rush hour traffic in a small Iowa town. Travolta, Berry, Jackman and Cheadle limp through this confusing tale of a cyber terrorist attempting to take over the world, or steal all its money, or something, I'm not really sure. It's a shame that they waste a good speech in the beginning, and a good panoramic explosion shot, because they shot their load in those, and spent the rest of the film wandering aimlessly around, blowing things up, and prostituting Berry when things slowed down.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - A film with a chance to break the stereotypical video game translation mode, with a big budget, a big star and lots of potential, instead continues this genres downward slide into absurdity. Even Angelina Jolie in tight clothes, kickboxing and kicking butt cannot save this horrible script and silly plot from being buried alive.

Cats and Dogs - Kids films were not immune from the stench of the summer, as this silly entry about the secret lives of canines and felines proves. The effects are cheap and insulting, the dually aimed messages miss on all levels and the result is boring, inane and totally pointless.

Jurassic Park 3 - The epitome of a disaster film, not from the aspect it should be though. In what I can only hope is the final chapter in a series that had already gone on too long, Sam Neill and company return to the island (not learning the lesson that even kids in slasher movies had) to again encounter man's tampering with nature. The film degrades with every frame, with an annoying performance from Tea Leoni, a plot that insults the originality of the first movie, and a script that entails a lot of running and screaming (which is what anyone who leaves this should be doing if they know what is good for them.

Overall, this summer was a disappointment, based on expectation and potential, but to say something is truly horrific, after recent events, is to taint that definition and rob it of its too importance. The movies have become a diversion now, and an escape from the reality that has come crashing around us. But still, my expectations were truly let down by a summer that could have been. There is no greater waste, in my eyes, then that of potential. This summer held so much, and delivered so little. I can only hope that the fall and winter seasons hold up to what could be. With Ali, Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings and new movies from Cameron Crowe and Martin Scorsese, I can only hope for the future and weep for the past.

{Note: Please visit Jerry's homepage and see the movie world through his eyes.}

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