2017 summer films put cracks in mold

The Toronto International Film Festival officially got underway Thursday, which means we're heading into the awards season. In some ways it's as problematic as the summer blockbuster season, but at least offers hope that there'll be something to see in theaters between now and Christmas.

Even though there are times I wish I could follow Pauline Kael's lead and take summers off, I have to admit that as summers go, 2017 wasn't a bad one for a film critic.

I was pleasantly surprised at Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde. Dunkirk exceeded my moderately high expectations. I liked The Big Sick. I thought The Hours was hilarious. I avoided Spider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes (though I'll definitely see the latter film at some point). I didn't hate Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And while I didn't connect with it on any deeper level, I appreciated Baby Driver as an exercise in style.

There were a few others I'm forgetting, which is largely the point of summer movies. They occupy us for a while (or not -- some of my most tedious moments have involved waiting for some putative tentpole movie to evaporate) and we go on our way. They're closer to amusement park rides than occasions for intellectual engagement, and that's what some people like about them. There's nothing about The Hitman's Bodyguard that demands we think about the motivations of the characters. It doesn't raise any philosophical questions deeper than whether it's worse to kill morally suspect people or to protect them. It's basically an excuse to watch Samuel L. Jackson do what he does best: Curse.

Among the highest-grossing films of this summer there are quite a few that would qualify as "smart" by Hollywood's downwardly defined lights, but it's the summer failures that tell the more important story. This was a disastrous summer for the movie business.

Box-office revenues in U.S. and Canadian theaters are estimated to be down some 16 percent from the summer of 2016, the industry's biggest year-over-year domestic revenue decline in modern times, according to The Hollywood Reporter. While two of the biggest flops -- Guy Ritchie's stylized King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and Luc Besson's giddy Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets -- might have presented as risky endeavors, the real shock to the studios was how financially disappointing this summer's installments of the usually reliable Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises turned out to be. And not even the presence of tiny action man Tom Cruise could save The Mummy, Universal Pictures' first foray into its new "Dark Universe" based on the studio's classic monster films of the 1930s.

U.S. box office is just part of the story. Would-be blockbusters are designed to play well in overseas markets (which is one of the reasons they feel so bland and compromised). Most of them eventually make a little money. So far King Arthur has made $146 million in total box-office gross against its $175 million production budget. (And Ritchie is set to direct Disney's live-action Aladdin.) Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets shows a $172 million global gross against a $177 million budget.

It's scary that even though this year's summer movies were markedly better than 2016's, fewer people want to see them.

OK, it's not really that scary. It might even be encouraging.

It's fairly obvious that, for most people, watching a movie in a theater is an occasional thing, and people are reluctant to shell out the price of a ticket for anything other than an event. There's too much good stuff on Netflix and HBO and Amazon, and there's no real qualitative difference in seeing a movie like Jordan Peele's Get Out in a theater against watching it on a nice home system. So while casual but discriminating moviegoers might opt to see something like Dunkirk on a big screen, they mightn't feel compelled to experience a more human-scale drama.

And the reason the box-office numbers for putative event films like Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean is off is because the audience for big-budget blockbusters has actually gotten more demanding; they've become inured to noise and spectacle and want more than the same old PG-13 sexiness and explosions. Again, increased competition probably factors into the equation -- there are lots of options available, and going to the movies has become relatively expensive -- but it's heartening that some of the movies that made the most money this summer -- Wonder Woman was the season's top-grosser, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was second, Dunkirk fifth -- were pretty good.




MovieStyle on 09/08/2017

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