01 July 2016

Purging Through the Jungle with a Big Fucking Giant

Ahh. The Fourth of July Weekend. This has traditionally been a powerhouse weekend at the Cinema, but truth be told, in recent years past that distinction has been put to the test. We have three films dropping this weekend, none of which I'd expect to really light up the box office. Still, let's try to discuss their critical, cultural, and commercial potential. First, though, let's update on Independence Day Weekend:

Way back when when I was crushing The Long Halloween, we discussed the obvious choice this weekend - Independence Day (1996). We're lucky to have Resurgence (2016) still slumming around theaters this weekend, and you should probably go see that. We haven't actually had an outstanding Independence Day weekend in a while though. If you check out the top all time, we have Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) at the tip-top and Despicable Me 2 (2013) at the #3 slot, but that doesn't feel quite like a Fourth of July America Fuck Yeah-sort of blockbuster, does it? We're five years past Dark of the Moon - what else we got?

Well, the only other films in the past decade are a Twilight film, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), and the original Transformers (2007). Recent years have given us some epic misfires, from Terminator: Genisys (2015) to Tammy (2014), The Lone Ranger (2013), and The Last Airbender (2010). These are some of the most high profile bombs of all time, or at least recent cinematic history. Once you get out into the aughts there are some better candidates like Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (2009), Hancock (2008), and Superman Returns (2006), but very few of these echo that epic patriotism of Independence Day. That's likely a solid reason why Transformers has done so well here. America wants to turn its brain off and watch some explosions, jingoism, and some fucking flag waving for the grand U S of A. I'm still kind of surprised that Tammy fell on its face, because even though it was a bit of a mess, it was totally a summer movie that had a lot of fun with itself, even if it had some heavy parts that didn't really hit on a tonal level.

My point is that in the 90s this weekend saw Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990 - which, by the way, what did audiences think of the Christmas-themed film that uses a snowstorm as an integral plot component coming out in the Heart of Summer?), T2: Judgment Day (1991 - somehow this is way more of a patriotic movie than Genysis. Maybe it's just a better movie), Men in Black (1997), Armageddon (1998), Wild Wild West (1999), and The Patriot (2000). These are the films that Independence Day built its back on. All of these are classic American blockbusters. Well, Wild Wild West and The Patriot sort of, but they're still pretty damn American.

On that note, we ought to talk about Will Smith, who appeared in four of the above movies (plus Men in Black II [2002], also a Fourth of July movie). These were all decently successful. Even Wild Wild West made as much as Bad Boys (1995) and Ali (2001) put together. His absence in any good film since...jeez, I Am Legend (2007)? If that? Maybe we go back to Hitch (2005)? Anyway, his absense in any good films, despite how incredible and weird and awesome his brief scene in Winter's Tale (2014) is, is surely felt in a country that yearns for someone to fill the big gap left by his departure. And we have another Independence Day right now! Why wasn't this worked out? Damn it. Damney damn it.

So let's go through these films in order of how much I want to see them, and I don't think I'll spend all that much time on anyone this go around. I say that now. Let's start with The BFG. Now, I was an enormous fan of the Roald Dahl book as a kid, and twenty years ago I'd be ecstatic at the prospect of a film adaptation. I'm not into it nearly as much now for some reason. Maybe it's just because I haven't read the book in twenty years. I remember the Fleshlumpeater and that farting scene. And didn't he really like pickles or something?
That's not natural.

The BFG just really doesn't look that exciting. I don't want to blame the layers of endless hokey CGI...but it's probably the endless layers of hokey CGI. I also can't understand Spielberg's sudden love affair with Mark Rylance. I'm not convinced of his acting ability at all, Academy Award be damned. Maybe the whole thing is just a little childish for me. I was also never into The Adventures of Tintin (2011), which was due to a simple disconnect from the material, which I think The BFG echoes.

There's no real reason to expect a poor movie out of Spielberg, although Tintin is unfortunately the closest thing you can compare this to. He's always avoided streaks or trends (he made The Lost World [1997] in between Schindler's List [1993] and Amistad [1997] and 1941 [1979] in between Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1977] and Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981] - you never know what you're going to get). I get a bad feeling about The BFG. I don't think Independence Day Americans want to see a British-based fantasy film. There hasn't been that much urgency to any of the marketing material, and there doesn't seem to be any must-see scenes or cultural resonance to it. I'd call it a hard pass at this point.

Roald Dahl film adaptaions are also a fairly mixed bag. For every Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) you have a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Even in animation, they range from the dreadful James and the Giant Peach (1996) to the sublime Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009). I'd argue that this essentially all comes down to the adaptation team. Mr. Fox is very much a Wes Anderson film the same as Charlie is, for better or worse, very much a later-era Tim Burton film. It's hard to predict anything, but I'm siding on the "no one cares" angle.

Moving on to The Legend of Tarzan (2016), which is another movie where I don't understand its existence. Why do they keep greenlighting Edgar Rice Burroughs stories? This actually seems to have an interesting twist - it's set after Tarzan has already left the jungle and depicts him coming back and re-adapting to Ape Culture. That's totally not communicated in the marketing and I feel a Hercules (2014) thing coming on where you get all pumped up to see Hercules and then it turns out that Hercules isn't even Hercules.
Watch out for that tree!

Of course, Tarzan is one of the most popular film characters of all time. He's appeared in 54 films since 1918. Of course, 44 of those films came before 1980. Still, there's been ten Tarzan films since 1980! Did you even know that?! The most high profile recent film is probably the bizarre dreadlocked Disney Tarzan (1999) with Rosie O'Donnell and a particularly brutal villain death, even for 90s Disney Films. But did you catch the Casper Van Dien film from 1998!? That was the last live action Tarzan film, and because of its serialized Johnny Weissmuller history along with its trend towards ultimate camp (Christopher Lambert taking the title role in 1984 seals it), it's been kind of a weird IP to add legitimacy to.

Still, it's public domain, so play ball. The cast of this one is actually pretty spectacular, re-uniting Django Unchained co-stars Sam Jackson and Christoph Waltz (who actually seems to be kind of awful in non-Tarantino films), along with Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou (who I feel like is in everything), and Jim Broadbent. The weak link is probably Alexander Skarsgård, who is a competent enough actor, but has never been really exceptional or a memorable draw. I suppose this is his chance, and he has the abs, so that works.

It's actually a bit weird how pervasive Tarzan is in our social consciousness. I've never seen a Tarzan film outside of the Disney version, but I totally know the story. The yell, the loincloth, it's all good. Most my memory is probably more Brendan Fraser George of the Jungle (1997). I mean, this is gold. Pure gold. I'm not going to be able to watch The Legend of Tarzan now. All I will think about is Brendan Fraser swinging into trees. Does Tarzan really deserve the rain-soaked gritty treatment? The dude's in loincloth surrounded by Apes. He better do the yell. I hope this film doesn't think it's too good for Skarsgård to scream through the jungle like a maniac. It's like Godzilla's fire breath; the most distinctive trait for the character.

I don't think anyone will want to see a Tarzan movie for the same reason they didn't want a John Carter movie or a Lone Ranger movie. These are old characters that we don't really care about. Every kid and nerd wants to see a movie about Captain America because they grew up reading stories about him. No one has sat around reading Tarzan stories in literally a hundred years, and even back then, they were niche pulp, not highly respected literature. My hopes for this film's success are about as dismal as The BFG. Again, if you're an overzealous American kid on Independence Day do you want to see some Brits wandering around the jungle screaming at Apes? Where is my damn fighter jet. Now, if they were to finally come out with a Magnus, Robot Fighter movie, then we'd be getting somewhere.

So now we move on to The Purge: Election Year (2016). Thank you, Purge. Thank you. This is my #1 movie of the week, at least that I'm pumped up about. It has tended to be a niche film, although to be fair, the original, even if wouldn't compete with traditional summer blockbusters, made thirty times its budget worldwide. It sequel, The Purge: Anarchy (2014) made a bit more than that, but more importantly, it drastically expanded its world in a way that I really respected. Election Year looks like it's going all-out nuts crazy, which is awesome. It feels like this series is getting looser and crazier as it goes on, toying with its premise in ways that progressively blur the line between horror and horror-comedy.
Do your patriotic duty and watch The Purge.

It's also flatly American. If there's any theme to this Independence Day Weekend post, it's that these films should have something American to them! I suppose the big studios don't actually care about that anymore because they can actually get a little more bank by focusing on more global issues while securing high worldwide grosses. Eww. Lame. There also seems to be a derth of political films in general this year. We've at least had W. (2008) or The Campaign (2012) in years past. Maybe The Purge: Election Year fits in with that lot.

Two years ago I argued that Purge movies could go on forever with the articulate yet simple high concept world they've built. The cool part is that they're not tied into any specific character or scenario. They can spin it into whatever they want. Obviously this year, with the chick from The Santa Clause 2: the Mrs. Clause (2002) wanting to ban the Purge, well that just won't stand. Hey it can't end with her being successful, right? Then these movies will stop! Maybe the creators are all purged out. No, that will not stand!

In terms of cultural resonance, I actually see Election Year blurring with Anarchy, unless it ends up really setting itself apart. It certainly seems like it could. It has the style, sardonic wit, and murderous irreverence to do so that seems to up the ante from the previous installments while communicating a pretty simple plot efficiently. Out of all the films coming out this weekend, Election Year is somehow the only one that has actually given me a compelling reason to see it - I want to know if the Purges stop!

Election Year will almost certainly make money, even if it doesn't debut near the top of the Weekend, which it'll honestly have to get through Finding Dory (2016) to get through, which ought to crush at least another $30 million. I can see The BFG reigning supreme, although it's going to be a close call. Election Year may also run into some trouble from The Shallows (2016) and The Conjuring 2 (2016), both of which have done decent for what they are. Are we horror'd out for Summer? They're all pretty different movies - ghosts, sharks, legal murder for 12 hours. What movie do you think will earn the crown this weekend?

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