Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Armchair Box Office Quarterbacking Isn’t for Everyone

Including me. Back in January I took a stab at predicting this summer’s box office totals and came up almost completely wrong through and through. In review, here are a few things I learned:

1. “Spider-Man 3” benefited more than I expected from being first out of the gate.
2. It seems ridiculous that $300 million-plus is somewhat disappointing for “Pirates 3,” but Disney might have been better served leaving the final (?) installment on the shelf for another year to let demand build a bit.
3. Michael Bay is the luckiest director in Hollywood. I gave “Transformers” a B- right after I saw it, but upon further reflection that was probably too high. Bay really trashed those characters and the movie was a C+ at best (yes, in my mind there’s a big difference between those two grades). He did, however, manage to ride Gen-X nostalgia, good trailers, a midweek Fourth of July holiday (which basically meant a full week that acted like a weekend), and generally positive we’re-just-glad-it’s-not-a-sequel reviews like mine to a monster payday. No one—and I mean NO ONE—thought just four months ago that this movie would best “At World’s End” by summer’s end. It’s still a mystery to me.
4. Even Pixar can’t make rats that cute. I’m still a bit stunned, though, that “Ratatouille” is having to scratch and claw its way to $200 million—the studio's lowest domestic gross in nearly a decade (1998's "A Bug's Life" made $162 million). It will be interesting to see if Pixar changes course at all in the future because of this.
5. People will come. Sequel fatigue and a crowded schedule may have hampered the end runs of several movies, but the opening weekends were still gigantic right through to the end. The fact that “Simpsons” and “Bourne” both raked in $70 million to open was surprising; I thought the moviegoing public might be worn out by then, but the films were good and people love the respective characters.

All in all, summer 2007 was excellent as summers go. I went to the theater more in the past four months than I probably had in the previous year and a half—and not out of some sort of pop-cultural obligation, but because I actually—shockingly—wanted to see these flicks (well, except for “Fantastic Four,” but even that was still a fun 90 minutes). And I didn’t even get to “Die Hard” or “Rescue Dawn”!

So here’s how my summer shook out, in order of preference (click on the titles to read my reviews):

1. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”—This movie had it all.
2. “The Bourne Ultimatum”—James Bond may be reinventing himself, but he can’t hold a candle to Jason Bourne. Paul Greengrass delivered yet another excellent film that cements the Bourne trilogy as one of the best in movie history—forget limiting it to just the spy genre. The car chases got all the hype, but my favorite scene was the close-quarters fight in the Tangiers hotel; it’s arguably the best combat sequence I’ve ever seen. Damon was once again perfect (and Oscar-worthy, even though that will never happen) and the script kept me leaned forward and engaged all the way through as it seamlessly weaved the conclusion in and around the first two movies (impressive considering it was composed almost on the fly). I had two complaints: David Strathaim’s CIA administrator was too much of a cliché (with some painful lines of dialogue, to boot), and the conclusion was a tad underwhelming and politically jingoistic after three movies’ worth of buildup. It’s not that I didn’t like the final reveal (even if it does make America look like the bad guy—what else is new?), but it wasn’t handled with the same deft dexterity as the rest of the film. What a shock: A message overwhelming the craft. Still, “Ultimatum” is the epitome of what an action thriller can and should be. Grade: A-
3. “Ratatouille”—Brad Bird rules. Much funnier and eye-popping than even I expected.
4. “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”—Screw the whiny critics who couldn’t follow along. This movie was gutsy and glam all at the same time.
5. “Spider-Man 3”—The rare occasion where superb action sequences make up for a wordy script.
6. “The Simpsons Movie”—The fact that this movie even made it to the big screen amidst the enormous pressure put on the writers is an achievement in and of itself. The fact that it’s flat-out hysterical is truly something. I guess those who haven’t seen it by now aren’t likely to anytime soon, but I still don’t want to give anything away—there’s even a laugh-out-loud joke before the movie even begins. The movie’s sizeable central flaw was the lack of screen time for key supporting characters. I realize Springfield is populated with literally dozens of fan-favorites, but you have to figure out a way to get Mr. Burns and Ralph Wiggum more than one or two lines apiece. You just have to. Still, there are so many jokes packed into this film’s 90 minutes I’ll probably have to watch it two or three more times to catch even most of them. Grade: B+
7. “Ocean’s Thirteen”—Matt Damon had a great summer. Thankfully he and his boys seemed to do more actual work this time around than partying.
8. “Transformers”—See above. Please let someone else direct the sequel. Michael Bay doesn’t even like these characters.
9. “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”—Better and funnier than I expected.

It’s sure going to be hard for Hollywood to top itself next summer, but hopefully the studios will space tent poles out a little more to give us all a little breathing room. Then again, this summer is probably going to be the most lucrative on record and next year we’re due for the return of Indy, Batman, and the kids from Narnia, so you can always count on Hollywood to run something into the ground—this time it may be the ticket-buying public.

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