Recapping the Summer Movies of 2011

Let’s take a look back at the summer movie season for 2011 and I will give you my opinion on the good, the bad and the ugly from the last few months.

Now that the kids are back in school, the temperature has cooled some (at least where I live) and the Muscular Dystrophy telethon has passed, the summer movie season has come to an end. Movie lovers can rejoice that explosions and car chases and sequels and prequels are, for the most part, behind us and we can look forward to more serious fare and better films.

All in all the summer movie season wasn’t all bad. I saw a total of thirty-four of the movies released from May through August and four of them have real possibilities of being on my list of the ten best pictures of the year. One of them I can guarantee you will be there. I didn’t get to see every movie that was released. I skipped all of the kids’ movies as I usually don’t see those unless the reviews are stellar (Toy Story 3 and Up are two recent examples that I did see). I skipped Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper’s Penguins but endured Zookeeper so I think that to be a fair trade off. It would have taken a lot to get me to see either Priest or Conan The Barbarian but the negative reviews assured me that my decision was a correct one. A whopping thirteen movies were released in 3-D, or just under one third of all the summer movies. Some of them hit big and others flopped big meaning the 3-D will neither entice nor detour a viewer from a movie they want to see.

Here is my rundown of the last few months. I hope you enjoy and if a good review of mine stands out may it convince to see it and, hopefully, enjoy it as much as I did.

Star for the summer of 2011-
This was a two way race but I decided to create another category for the runner-up. For this summer there is no question the biggest winner is actress Emma Stone, whom you may have previously seen in Easy A or Zombieland. This summer she appeared in three movies, all of them good and all of them hits. The Help is the best of the three and the sleeper hit of the summer. Friends With Benefits and Crazy, Stupid Love were the two romantic comedies of the summer that worked. Emma can now certify herself as a star.

Breakthrough star of the summer –
Jessica Chastain is a name you might not be familiar with yet, but you will be. A lovely redhead, she has created one different character after another and this summer appeared in three distinctly different movies and was terrific in all of them. She first appeared as Brad Pitt’s loyal wife in Tree of Life. Next up she was the Caucasian outcast amongst a group of women in The Help. Finally she plays the young Helen Mirren in the thriller The Debt. Chastain is a name to remember and it is my bet she will be competing for Oscar gold in the very near future.

Loser of the summer –
Ryan Reynolds has proven himself to be a good young actor in both comedies and dramas but this summer he flopped in one of each making him the biggest loser amongst actors for the summer. First up he appeared in the title role in Green Lantern and while he was well cast the film itself had problems and was a box office disappointment. On the comedy side, Reynolds appeared with Jason Bateman in the dreadful body switching comedy, The Change-Up, an R rated comedy so bad that even teenagers didn’t rush to see it. In one of its worst moments Reynolds and Bateman are forced to urinate in a fountain located in a shopping mall and do so, right in front of kids and adults alike. I am sure Reynolds will rebound but this summer was one to forget.

The Best Film of Summer 2011 –
Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is a breathtaking motion picture experience. It’s why I fell in love with movies in the first place. I can only imagine people had the same reaction back in 1968 the first time they saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. While many people find the film slow and pretentious with its lack of plot points and detailed exposition, I found Malick’s film about life, death, creation and everything in between to be almost hypnotic in its mastery. I have never seen a movie like this one before and will likely not see one like it again. Every image is a sight to behold (which is normally the case with any Malick film) and while Malick opens more doors than he closes, he dares you to think. He dares you to make sense of the ending in your own way. He dares you to give your own meaning not only to his film but to life itself. This was as powerful a film experience as I have every had and I will be hard pressed to find a film I will love more than this one this year.

Worst Film of Summer 2011-
I had about four choices that I could have flipped a coin on and any one of them would have fit but I decided to choose the one that was the most popular of the group. For me The Hangover 2 was an exercise in filmmaking laziness like I haven’t seen in years. Director Todd Phillips (along with his co-screenwriters) have simply re-shot the hilarious first film in a different locale. There are certain scenes that are nearly verbatim to the original so, in essence, audiences shelled out millions to see the first film that they likely had recently seen on cable television. The films few twists and turns are foreshadowed in such obvious manner that you see them coming long before the characters do. While I found the characters in the original to be oddly endearing, in this film they are just obnoxious jerks. And why is it that in most wedding films the bride’s father always hates the groom only to come around at the end? When I saw this my friend and I realized more than halfway through that it had been almost an hour since we had laughed hard and maybe half that since we laughed at all. I was angry when this film was over. Angry that the public fell victim to a movie scam. The studio, creators and actors ought to be ashamed of themselves.

The Great Films – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was a strong and fitting end to the terrific film series. Audiences demanded nothing less and the filmmakers delivered with each film. This concluding chapter is one of the best films of the series. The Help, the sleeper hit of the summer, is a terrific comedy/drama about the life of maids and their white owners in Mississippi in the 1960’s. Some critics have complained the film is too soft considering the turbulent times but I thought the mixture of tones was just right. If the Academy Award nominations were announced today the Best Supporting Actress category could easily be filled with women from this movie. Midnight in Paris is Woody Allen’e best film in at least a decade. This whimsical comedy/fantasy stars Owen Wilson as a writer on vacation in Paris who, each night, finds himself transported back to the Paris of the 30’s where he parties with the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. This is a delightful film that will make you smile from ear to ear from start to finish.

The Strong Films – For me Captain America was one of the two best superhero movies of the summer. The CGI for actor Chris Evans was amazing, first making him look incredibly small and then making him look incredibly buff. It’s my bet there is little of the real actor actually ever seen. The film was a lot of fun and was a great set up to next summer’s Avengers movie. The Debt is an exciting thriller told in past and present starring Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson as two of three members of a team assigned to capture and then exterminate a wanted Nazi. But things go wrong and situations (seen in flashback played by actors including Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain) haunt them for the rest of their lives. The Devil’s Double is a film you likely never heard of but should seek out on cable or Netflix. It’s based on the true story of a man kidnapped by Saddam Hussein’s men and forced to live in one of his palaces because of his amazing resemblance to one of Hussein’s sons. He is also required to sometimes pose as the son and is kept against his will, his family believing he is dead. Dominic Cooper, playing the dual role of the helpless man and Hussein’s son, is superb and while it won’t happen, he deserves an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. The biggest surprise of the whole summer was my utter enjoyment of Fast Five. I am not a big fan of the Fast and the Furious series but this film is easily the best of the series. It is well directed punctuated by some amazing chase sequences that leave you nearly breathless. Horrible Bosses was the funniest film of the summer as three men decide to kill each other’s horrible boss (played with great relish by Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston looking her hottest). I laughed longer and harder in this film than any other this year. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an exciting thriller about the development of the apes into the fearsome beasts they would become in the 1968 original. The long sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge is worth the price of admission. Super 8 has a major flaw that kept gnawing at me but I finally let it go and let the film (with its wonderful performances by children) take me over. I was probably more satisfied by it than most as I usually don’t let major flaws pass but I couldn’t help myself. X-Men: First Class was the best superhero movie of the summer and that was a shock as the last film was generally weak. Director Matthew Vaughn has made a prequel that has jumped new life into the franchise and made it the best film of the series.

The Good Films – Apollo 18 is a thriller made along the lines of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity about a secret mission to the moon and the unfortunate things the astronauts find when they get there. It never scared me but it kept me interested. Bridesmaids was the big comedy hit of the summer and I found it funny and entertaining but thought it missed some targets and ran a little too long. All in all it was still fun. Crazy, Stupid Love told several stories at once as Steve Carell discovers wife Julianne Moore wants a divorce and he is soon getting tips from studly Ryan Gostling, who soon finds himself falling in love with Emma Stone. Eventually all the stories come together albeit somewhat improbably, but if you are with the film (as I was) it won’t matter. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was a creepy little thriller about a family living in a house with creatures hidden away below the basement. The film would have worked much better had we seen less of the CGI creatures but on the whole it was a solid thriller. For some reason I have been a sucker for the Saw and Final Destination series and Final Destination 5 is a welcome comeback after last year’s weak The Final Destination. Some of the very gory deaths are totally improbable but in a film like this it is hard to complain. It also contains and unexpected and neat twist at the end. Friends With Benefits has convinced me that Justin Timberlake has a bright future in front of the camera. The first hour of this movie is so funny I thought something very special was happening but a switch of tone in the second half nearly grounds the whole movie. Still worthwhile but should have been better. Was I the only one to see the Fright Night remake? I am amazed at its failure at the box office but I will bet it finds an audience as the original did. I give it credit for taking the same story as the original and making it its own film rather than simply telling the same story again. There are subtle references to the original (including a nice cameo) but the characters are virtually different from the original save for their names. I especially liked the new Peter Vincent character. 30 Minutes or Less is a rather demented black comedy about a pizza delivery boy forced to rob a bank while a bomb is strapped to him. Since I am demented (so says some of you) and I love black comedies it would have had to be truly awful for me not to find some enjoyment in it. Thor was another superhero movie that was entertaining and a nice set up to next summer’s Avengers movie.

The Not Quite Good but Close Call Movies – Cowboys and Aliens teeters back and forth between light adventure and horror bur never truly finds a consistent tone and that left me frustrated. The film also left open some obvious questions that needed to be answered. I was with the film for about an hour but the second half is a letdown. Green Lantern is a mildly entertaining superhero film that has a weak villain and not enough time is spent on Ryan Reynolds as the title character. It has its moments but I was disappointed. Larry Crowne was the summer’s biggest disappointment to me. You have a movie that stars Tom Hanks (who also directed and co-wrote) and Julia Roberts and you expect magic. Sadly the film’s best moments are between Hanks and Cedric the Entertainer. It’s a nice film but it’s too nice. There are no real conflicts so Hanks’ title character just moves from one nice thing to another. Our Idiot Brother was not the film I expected it to be and while I cannot hold it against the film, I can hold against it the fact that it’s not as funny as it should have been and too much time is spent on supporting characters and their stories. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides proves once and for all that this series stalled after the second movie. The opening chase sequence and a great scene involving luring mermaids into traps are spectacular but the film is as much a yawn at times as it is exciting. May Johnny Depp put Captain Jack to rest for good.

The Average MoviesColombiana is an action adventure film starring the lovely Zoe Saldana in the starring role as a woman vowing to avenge the murder of her parents when she was nine years old. The film’s script is silly as situations play out by sheer contrivance. Characters literally have to do things at specific moments for her to react properly and it happens each and every time. All you can do is sit back and let the film happen because if you think about it for more than a second you will start a checklist of things wrong with it. Something Borrowed was yet another romantic comedy that goes by the books. You can spot everything coming long before it happens. It’s a waste of time. Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon is one big, loud movie that is likely to give people a headache after almost three hours of explosions and crashes. Director Michael Bay over does it as usual and while he does offer a few spectacular chase scenes most of the film is just one loud bang. May this be the end of the series.

The Bad Movies – Bad Teacher is a disappointment simply because it never lives up to what it could have been. Obviously the film is trying to be a female Bad Santa but it falls well short of that great comedy. For one thing Cameron Diaz plays her character as someone so hateful and selfish that you can’t possibly root for her to get anything she wants, even if it’s by nefarious means. The film also draws more groans than laughs. The only bright spot is a nice performance by Lucy Punch as another teacher who sees through Diaz right away. The Change-Up is a truly awful comedy that borrows the old formula of two men who switch bodies – the stud bachelor in the body of his married pal and vice versa. The situations are poorly set up and the pay offs are obvious. Both Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds are totally wasted. I have already touched on The Hangover Part 2 above so there is no sense wasting even one more word on it. Shark Night 3-D was supposed to be this year’s Piranha 3-D (which, while bad was at least fun with its over the top violence and nudity) but rating it PG-13 killed its potential. With little violence and no nudity the viewer is forced to concentrate on a stupid and unbelievable plot and characters as dull as a butter knife. Zookeeper proved that any comedy Adam Sandler is part of (he voiced one of the animals and produced) is likely to be stupid. This one is no exception. Kevin James can be likeable but he is lost here. Kids might have been amused but I imagine adults were bored to death.

And there you have it. Now let’s look forward to awards season and a much better (I hope) selection of movies.

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