Few bright spots in blockbuster filled summer

By Kevin Romani

Courtesy of Francois Duhamel and Paramount Pictures

For major motion picture studios, the summer movie season has become the most important time of year. With school out for the summer, kids and parents are left seeking opportunities for affordable fun. Movie theaters, as overpriced as they are, are still one of the cheaper forms of entertainment. Studios take advantage of this by showcasing their massively budgeted franchise films spread thinly throughout the season. Sequels, prequels and comic book adaptations (all often involving superheroes) are all too common in the summer months.

Every year it seems the number of summer blockbuster hopefuls – in particular, sequels – increases. 2011 was no exception. The year will set a record for most sequels or prequels with an astonishing 27, many of which were released between May and August. Director Jon Favreau (“Cowboys and Aliens”) referred to this past summer as a “bloodbath,” citing how each calendar week seemed to feature the release of a new blockbuster. The summer’s two highest grossing films, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” were released just two and a half weeks apart.

This is great news for movie buffs, as they are apt to see all of the biggest films regardless of how many there are or when they are released. For average movie goers, however, some films may be left unnoticed due to the short windows for each film and the amount of turnover on a week-to-week basis. With 2011, the quality of films may have suffered due to the vast number of major releases. Several projects felt rushed and incomplete, as producers and executives had to balance their time amongst many productions at once. There were, however, a few movies that made the season worthwhile. Here are five films in particular that stood out from the rest of the crowd.

5. Cowboys and Aliens

Yes, the title may be cheesy, but so is the movie itself. This is meant to be a compliment. “Cowboys and Aliens” is a Western/Science-Fiction genre mash-up made with the spirit of “B” movies from the 1950s. With all of the star power attached to the film’s production – director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”), producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard and co-writers Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci (“Star Trek,” “Fringe”) and Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), just to name a few – the movie may feel like a disappointment. The science fiction aspect of the film is lacking, as the aliens are familiar and their story is cliche and riddled with continuity issues. But where the film really works is as a Western, helped mostly by the performances of Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford as well as the beautiful, scenic cinematography of the western landscape. If the viewer sets aside the past accomplishments of the crew, they can see this movie for what it really is: a “B” picture with the purpose of being a heck of a lot of fun. And that’s exactly what it is.

4. Thor

Eyebrows were raised when director Kenneth Branagh, an accomplished English director with past work on several films based on the writings of Williams Shakespeare, signed on to direct “Thor,” which was an adaptation of an American comic strip. But what attracted Branagh to the role was the Shakespearean-esque relationship between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Branagh’s past work made him the perfect fit for directing these scenes, as “Thor” brought more emotional impact than what has come to be expected from superhero films. With a solid story, superb performances and dazzling visual effects, “Thor” was yet another success in the newly formed Marvel Studios.

3. Captain America: The First Avenger

The second release from Marvel Studios this year, “Captain America: The First Avenger” was an even bigger success than “Thor.” Instead of lazily updating the origin story of Captain America to the contemporary world, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wisely placed the story in the 1940s, the decade in which the character was originally etched in comic strips. The film works so well as a period piece, where director Joe Johnston (“October Sky”) encapsulated the 1940s as a dark, yet hopeful time in America, one in which everyone wanted to believe in a hero. Captain America was that hero, and Chris Evans’ maturity as an actor is evident in his performance as the titular character. “Captain America” is one of the better origin superhero stories to date, and set the stage nicely for next summer’s “The Avengers.”

2. Super 8

Director, writer and producer J.J. Abrams has enjoyed a multitude of success over the past few years, whether it be in the television field (“Lost” and “Fringe”) or in film (“Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible III”). He has often been referred to as “the next Steven Spielberg.” This statement will seem most evident after seeing “Super 8,” a film that harkens back to early Spielberg pictures like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “ET.” In fact, Spielberg himself produced the film for Abrams. “Super 8” tells the story of a boy named Joe, who is coping with the loss of his mother and impending father issues. Concurrently, he is trying to understand the strange incidents taking place in his small town after a peculiar train wreck occurs. Like “Cowboys and Aliens,” there is a science fiction aspect to the film that feels like it did not get the attention it deserved in the script. This one flaw in the film is forgivable, however, as the real strength in the film comes from Joe and his band of movie-loving friends. All of these young actors gave memorable performances, as they delivered both humor and real emotional impact at the same time. With an emotionally resonating story, outstanding visual work and a sweeping score from Michael Giacchino (who did his best John Williams impersonation), “Super 8” was an outstanding combination of both the new and old Steven Spielberg.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

The “Harry Potter” franchise has been a remarkably consistent and solid franchise for the past ten years. The first six films, however, never truly matched the books in quality. It always felt like something was missing. Both parts of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” – especially Part 2 – may have provided some explanation as to what was lacking in the previous films: time. Warner Brothers made the correct decision in splitting up the massive final chapter of J.K. Rowling’s epic fantasy series, as the entire story was given justice and allowed the filmmakers to end the series in the proper way. Just as readers of the beloved series could not put down the books, viewers of “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” could not keep their eyes off the screen. The action and pacing of the film were relentless. When there were breaks, some of the best acting of the entire series would kick in. Somewhere in the middle of the series, it was debatable as to whether or not stars Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson were legitimate actors or just the closest look alikes to the famed fictional characters. This is no longer a question, as the maturity of the actors throughout the series has been tremendous, and they give their best performances in this last film. In limited time, Alan Rickman’s performance as Professor Snape may have been the most memorable. Warner Brothers and the producers showed extreme dedication to making these films more than just book summaries of Rowling’s work, but to add to the Potter legacy by making great pictures to accompany the novels. This is obvious with the tremendous final effort, as “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” was not only the best summer movie, but might even end up as the best film of 2011.

Kevin Romani can be reached at [email protected]