People Tell Me I Look Like Han Solo.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
  Classic summer movies

It’s Burger Week here on the Captivate blogosphere (hey, that’s a word officially recognized by Microsoft Word’s spellchecker now. Huh.), and because of the rather unsurprising dearth of movies about burgers that aren’t designed to gross out audiences (i.e. Fast Food Nation or the documentary Food, Inc.), I’ve been given license to expand the Burger Week theme a little bit to include summer in general, so I thought I’d look at a few of what I consider to be pretty quintessential summer movies.

It doesn’t happen every summer, but every few years a summer blockbuster transcends “hit movie” status and vaults into “pop culture phenomenon” territory, like The Dark Knight last summer, but this 1994 actioner lodged itself into the public consciousness with a high concept that arguably has yet to be topped – a terrorist rigs a city bus full of innocent people so that if its speed drops below 50 mph the whole thing explodes – as well as Keanu Reeves in a career-cementing action-hero
performance and Sandra Bullock breaking out as a full-on movie star (though I always thought she was great in Demolition Man). In the summer of ’94, Speed was the movie to see, and its smash success shows that it appealed to more than just testosterone junkies. (It’s also sort of amazing that a violent, R-rated action flick could rake in more than $100 million, a huge amount of money back then, and something that completely flies in the face of what passes for conventional wisdom in Hollywood these days). Even today I still occasionally hear people say “Pop quiz, hotshot.”

Jan De Bont made his directorial debut with this crackerjack action flick after working as the cinematographer on iconic action movies like Die Hard (which Speed borrows more than a bit from) and The Hunt for Red October, and never came close to these heights again in terms of either quality or box office success. But most importantly, Speed is just a good, old-fashioned pre-CGI action movie, packed with thrills and crazy stunts. Revisiting the movie for this column really made me appreciate how, even as high-concept as it is, it feels decidedly old school by today’s standards. I’d forgotten there was a time when tightly-directed practical action was what you built a big-budget blockbuster around, not maelstroms of computer-generated images and gimmicky special effects. (Seriously, how many summer blockbusters these days have more than, say, 35% “real,” un-CGI’d footage in their climactic sequences? My guess is zero.) There’s a reason why when I hear “summer blockbuster,” I usually picture Keanu Reeves standing over Sandra Bullock while she frantically tries to drive a bus. Speed is a summer classic.

For this column I specifically wanted to look for summer movies in the classic sense, movies that are all about fun and spectacle, but not the sort of movies that get nominated for non-technical Oscars, if you catch my drift. Summer blockbusters are typically at least somewhat flawed, as the goal is usually to entertain rather than intellectually stimulate. But watching part of the abysmal sequel Revenge of the Fallen on cable the other day really hammered home how good Michael Bay’s first go-round with the transforming robots actually was. The 2007 smash is still way better than it has any business being (a bigger childhood fan of the Transformers property you could not find, and even I thought it was a stupid idea to turn it into a movie), and for me, it’s because Bay and company managed to create human characters that I actually cared about. Transformers was where I realized I actually quite like Shia LaBeouf (though I still can’t shake the feeling that I
shouldn’t), and that Michael Bay can somehow simultaneously embody everything that’s wrong with modern Hollywood, but also make really fun movies. Transformers is the ultimate diversion, a movie with a beyond-silly premise (it is adapted from a toy line, after all) that still manages to be a huge amount of goofy fun, a near-perfect popcorn diversion.

Iron Man 2
I figured I’d throw in a movie currently in theaters just in case you feel like checking something out on your impending holiday weekend, and Iron Man 2 is a pretty solid piece of summer entertainment. A lot of critics seem to think the sequel, while upping the ante considerably in the action department, is actually a step-down in terms of story and characters. I’ve seen the original Iron Man a great many times, and I found the same loose, fun vibe that the first movie had in the sequel. Sure there’s a few plot issues (the blood-poisoning angle that drives much of the first two acts of the movie is wrapped up in an absurdly convenient fashion), but overall Iron Man 2 is just a great time at the movies. As much as there’s still a ton of great-looking movies due in the next few months, I’m not sure any of them will be as much pure fun as Iron Man 2.

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