Drag me to the cinema: summer movies in review
While some may have spent the summer perched by a window, longing for the rain to stop, others spent it in the air-conditioned, free-flowing soda fountain bliss of a local movie theater. Whichever side you belong to, this season’s films took us well beyond the thunderstorms of summer days – from the halls of Hogwarts to the bustling streets of 1950s France – and in some cases, brought us straight to hell. Here we break down the best (and worst) of the season.
“Drag Me To Hell” (Released May 29): When a perky bank employee (Alison Lohman) pisses off the wrong one-eyed gypsy (Lorna Raver), she inadvertently becomes the target of the dreaded lamia – a curse that promises, in three days’ time, to drag its sufferers on a one-way journey to the fiery pits of hell. Horror and hijinks ensue as our besieged heroine scurries to weasel her way out of eternal damnation. While the effects may seem corny to the CGI-spoiled eye (projectile vomiting; churlish, talking goats) they play to director Sam Raimi’s (once better known for the “Evil Dead” trilogy than for “Spiderman”) schlocky strengths. The only thing that’s lacking is a cameo from Bruce Campbell. To make up for it, watch for the “Mac Guy” (Justin Long) to be frequently within eyeshot of an Apple gadget.
“Away We Go” (Released June 5): In the ranks of “I’m-pregnant-so-it’s-time-to-grow-up-now” movies, “Away We Go” sticks out like a sore hemorrhoid. Maybe it’s because Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) already have their act straightened out – they’re happily together and eager to have a child. All that’s lacking is a place for them to hang their hats and spare pacifiers. Embarking on a meandering road trip that brings them to the doorsteps of old friends and selfish relatives, the two discover that home might just be a state of being. McSweeney’s own Dave Eggers and wife Vendela Vida are responsible for the script’s moments of striking poignancy, while director Sam Mendes, fresh off the lukewarm reception of “Revolutionary Road,” rebounds with a film that feels almost as sweet as a trimester is long.
“Whatever Works” (Released June 19): Woody Allen’s movies are starting to smell like milk that’s been left out too long in the summertime. This one – based on a script that’s been collecting dust in his file cabinet for about 30 years – places Larry David as a nastier, more elitist version of the Allen prototype. When he’s not busy whining about the expanding Universe, the inevitability of death or the pointlessness of higher education (all tired talking points, even among Allen loyalists), he’s romancing 21-year-old Evan Rachel Wood – kind of. His idea of romance is to insult her constantly, which she, a ditzy but likeable Southern runaway, somehow finds irresistible. As creepy as their pairing is, Wood pulls it off with finesse. There’s a little something extra and enigmatic lurking beneath that tight ponytail of hers, which is more than can be said for this truly disappointing endeavor.
“The Hurt Locker” (Released June 26): Kathryn Bigelow’s latest film explores the perils of the Iraq War through the eyes of three soldiers whose mission – defusing roadside bombs – proves to be as fraught with risk as it is exhilarating. Danger hangs thick in the atmosphere of “The Hurt Locker,” keeping viewers on a short leash of suspense as the trio’s tour abroad slowly winds down. The film doesn’t quite stop there, and continues after the lads have made it home. There, Bigelow deftly shows how for some men, the rush of the frontline never leaves, making it impossible to re-adjust to civilian life. Before this, Bigelow’s claim to fame might have been the 1991 guilty pleasure “Point Break.” If “Hurt Locker” rides this current wave of critical acclaim straight over to Oscar season, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
“(500) Days of Summer” (Released Jul. 17): Here’s a movie that, at the very least, knows its audience and isn’t afraid to pander to it. “(500) Days” documents the doomed relationship of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) – he a lowly writer at a greeting card company, she a big-eyed siren in the mold of Bettie Page. Their romance runs the gamut of hipster clichés – they romp through IKEA, bond over the Smiths and when they break up, they do so suddenly (and ever so unusually) over pancakes. Later on, he sobs out a dreadful karaoke rendition of “Train in Vain,” much to the chagrin of his blind date, who doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. Frankly, neither do I. “(500) Days” is annoying and formulaic; none of it feels authentic, certainly not coming from Deschanel, the indie poster girl who, although fun to watch in her band She & Him, does little more than stare blankly into the camera, offering no depth and zero protest as Tom (and, by extension, us) projects all sorts of misplaced fantasies onto her.
“Orphan” (Released Jul. 24): Little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) can paint and play the piano with an ability that goes well beyond her nine years. She’s also the craziest youngster this side of Damien in “The Omen.” The usual creepy kid troubles start to manifest soon after she’s adopted by the yuppie Colemans (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga). Nuns go missing and classroom bullies get mysteriously pushed off of play sets, with Esther always lurking nearby. But wait for it – you may think you know where this is headed, but “Orphan” has a few juicy plot twists up its sleeve. And here you probably thought M. Night Shyamalan had ruined them permanently.
“The Ugly Truth” (Released Jul. 24): Katherine Heigl has griped in the past about film roles that demean women. Funny, then, that she chose to participate in this sexist rom-com migraine about an almost-frigid TV producer (Heigl) on the prowl for Prince Charming. Things go disastrously wrong until she recruits a callow jerk (Gerard Butler) to school her in the ways of tart-dom (lessons include how to thrust out one’s bosom and giggle mindlessly at every stupid thing a guy says). Heigl strains to be charming but ends up sounding shrill and off-putting. Butler, for his part, works better in mano-a-mano action porn like “300” – here, he’s just a poor man’s Matthew McConaughey.
“Julie & Julia” (Released Aug. 7): Julia Child, of omelet-flipping fame, occupies half the screen time in this effervescent comedy; modern-day Manhattanite Julie Palmer occupies the other. The two collide over – what else? – fine cuisine, and the results are scrumptious, indeed. Veteran screenwriter Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle,” “When Harry Met Sally”) pulls from Child’s personal memoir and Palmer’s, who in the summer of 2002, decided to blog her way through all 524 recipes in Child’s penultimate work, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Meryl Streep and Amy Adams star as the two leads, respectively, in a culinary adventure that’s bound to leave you grinning warmly at the screen and jonesing for one of Child’s magnifique dishes.