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Thursday, July 27, 2006

My Favourite Dumb Summer Movies
We may as well admit it: summer blockbusters are here to stay. Since at least Jaws (1975) and probably before, the big, action-packed special effects driven film has been a staple of the industry and why not? They do what Hollywood movies are designed to do: make money. Summer and Christmas, it seems, are the only times the American film industry thinks we go to the movies, and make no mistake, these films are meant to be seen in a theatre eating overpriced popcorn. That's the point, really. They're the cinematic equivalent of a burger and fries. Nothing wrong with that every now and then.

Maybe it's because it's too hot to think, maybe we're in a better mood, who knows, but I for one am a lot more forgiving of Hollywood conventions in the summer. That's where this list comes from. They're my favourite guilty pleasures, my comic books in the closet, my Iron Maiden albums in the attic. Maybe on this list you'll find one of your own.

1. The Rock (1996). Why is it that we give Sean Connery so much rope? The man was already older than God when he made this film, and yet there he is, hustling it around with Nic Cage pretending to be a 66-year-old action star. The plot is pure summer movie foolishness. A rogue Army General (Ed Harris, giving WAY more than necessary to the role) kidnaps tourists on Alcatraz and winds up holding the entire city of San Francisco for ransom using an experimental poison. The biochemist who knows how to diffuse the poison bomb happens to be Nic Cage (for the record, no biochemists drive beige Volvos), and Connery is a former prisoner who knows how to get a special strike force, including Cage, into the island. This is, of course, complete nonsense, concocted only to facilitate action sequences and witty exchanges. That's sort of the point of big summer movies, though there are two things that make The Rock stand out. Nic Cage is especially good at the witty exchanges, and some of his vulgarity is funny in its originality ("How in name of Zeus's butthole!?"). The other is Connery - as I said before, we're so forgiving of the old man that even when he limps through his action sequences, he comes off as being "all man". He's our generation's John Wayne, without so much of the far-right politics. The fact that he said it's okay to hit one's wife just adds to his outdated, priggish charm. I like The Rock because it refuses to apologize for what it is. In the environment of intellectual cowardice that permeates the corporate film world, that's something to really admire.

2. The Goonies (1985). Leave to Spielberg and Richard Donner to make geeky boys feel good about themselves. This film is a great example of how clever filmmakers know that children are far less fearful and need far less protection than those dull adults think. The plot is the very definition of needless complexity - a group of outcast misfit kids goes on a treasure hunt for a lost pirate's loot. They are pursued by a trio of cartoonish villains bent on getting the loot for themselves. Adventure ensues. In lesser hands, this film could have been palpable foolishness, but director Richard Donner (best known for the original Superman (1978) and the Lethal Weapon films) puts the emphasis on the relationship between the kids and honours their perspective of the world. That world, by the way, is best described as "respectfully cartoonish". The pirate lair and ship is a masterwork of set design, as is the loveable deformed henchman and many other touches. Like so many Terry Gilliam films, this one is smart enough for kids but exciting enough for adults. I loved the film as a kid (I was a Goonie in a very real way), but I still admire it as an adult.

3. Tombstone (1993). Oh, what a delightfully silly mess this film is. An amalgam of every western cliche ever concocted pretending to be a serious re-invention of the medium by Italian director George Cosmatos (of Rambo fame). Based about as loosely as a Mumu on the real-life story of Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell, steely-eyed and somehow perfect), who left a life of law enforcement behind to settle in the town of Tombstone with his brothers Morgan (Bill Paxton) and Virgil (Sam Elliott, effortlessly embodying a 19th century man). Along the way, they meet up with Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), a gambler and crook dying of TB and get mixed up with the local organized crime folks called simply "the Cowboys", led by Powers Boothe, with Michael Biehn effectively lending menace to the film as Johnny Ringo. This all eventually leads to a gunfight at the OK Corral (you may have heard of it) and finally an all-out white hats vs black hats war. The movie is having too good a time to stop for any length of time and seriously examine the verisimilitude of the wild west or dwell on complex character relationships. It's so enjoyable mainly for its consistent series of great moments, like when Earp stands down a local Pharoah dealer (played by Billy Bob Thornton, of all people) or just about every scene featuring Val Kilmer. Without Kilmer's wit and presence, the movie may have been a complete wash, but he gives the whole affair just enough sly, knowing humour to keep you smiling instead of laughing.

4. Crimson Tide (1995). There's a pattern emerging here. Action movies, for me at least, are okay as long as they're written with style, creativity and wit. Crimson Tide is the perfect example of that. On the surface, this is a routine war thriller with lots of Men (not the capital "M") in uniform yelling at each other on a submarine over matters of national defense. Ordinarily, that kind of macho, pro-military posturing would drive me away in about ten seconds, but this film has Gene Hackman chomping his cigar as the Captain of a nuclear submarine and Denzel Washington as his brainy, idealistic, slightly liberal first mate. You had better believe that there is a scene where these two yell at each other nose to nose, and that there is a scene when the sub narrowly escapes a torpedo attack and that the men are marched through the corridors in a manly hurry... in other words, you would think that this movie just writes itself. The difference, given all those cliches, is the intensity of the performances by Hackman and Washington and the unexpected intelligence of the dialogue, reportedly doctored by Quentin Tarantino. When, near the end of the film, the two confront each other with dialogue about racehorses, all is coded and hinted, a perfect example of "show, don't tell". It's an object lesson for aspiring screenwriters. Besides that, every once in a while I fall for the thriller genre, if it's done well enough. It's a thrill, and isn't that what summer movies are all about?

5. Space Cowboys (2000). I remember thinking that the tagline for this movie should have been "I'm too old for this sh*t", since you watch the entire film waiting for either James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland or director (and star) Clint Eastwood to say it. The first surprising thing in the movie is that none of them actually do say that line. The second surprising thing is that it has a third act that makes you forget about that omission. Eastwood's crew, all playing versions of themselves to a greater or lesser extent, are a bunch of old astronauts from the 1950s who were denied the opportunity to go into space when NASA took over the program from the Air Force. The key bureaucratic weasel who gets in the way of Eastwood's efforts to do the right thing (just like in every Dirty Harry movie ever made) is played by James Cromwell in the only other character to make the transition from the fifties to the "present day". When a Russian satellite needs its guidance system fixed, Eastwood's character is the only one for the job (funny, that) and he insists on being sent into space with his three compatriots. While in the real world, NONE OF THIS WOULD EVER HAPPEN, a summer movie can cheerfully go along with this preposterous scenario because, well, it's fun. All the cliched scenes of training, all the old rivalries, the banter, the jokes about their ages, all of this is more or less in line with what you'd expect from this silly little movie. But once Eastwood and the boys get up into space, the film changes gears and turns into a midly intriguing post-cold-war action/thriller, kind of like Eastwood's earlier (and in its way, much more preposterous) film Firefox (1982). The reasons I fell for this movie are easy to identify. It has great humour (if entirely predictable), some great character actors, and frankly I'm kind of a space geek, so it was easy for me to get into the world of NASA and all its shenanigans. It's not The Right Stuff - it's more like Space Camp for grownups.
:: posted by Ian Dawe, 7/27/2006 Comments (0)
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