It's September. Glastonbury, Wimbledon and Edinburgh Fringe seem a distant memory. The air grows colder and the days get darker as the curtain begins to fall on another British summer. As sure as the great British public will paradoxically bemoan the lack of precipitation of drought-filled June and gut-wrenching disappointment of near-arctic August, so the Multiplexes have been playing host to Hollywood's (and one of Britain's) multi-million dollar Blockbusters. Now that the summer has drawn to an end for another year, it seems an apt time to look back at the best and worst films of the last few months. The only criterion is that the movie's budget has to be in excess of $50,000,000.
May marked the turn of Marvel's X-Men to undergo the prequel treatment after the franchise fell spectacularly off the rails under the watch of Bret Ratner in 2006's X-Men: Last Stand. The reboot was in good hands however, with Matthew Vaughn directing a script he co-wrote with long-term writing partner Jane Goldman amongst others. The pair last worked together on last year's wonderful Kick-Ass so hopes were high for another super-hero themed outing and, for the most part, it delivered. Although this summer's movie was a considerable improvement on the last film, with an interesting relationship playing out between the two perfectly cast leads, a great baddie performance from Kevin Bacon and an intelligent and fluid screenplay, it couldn't avoid some of the inherent landmines that previous directors have found hard to navigate around in the past. The big problem with X-Men movies is that there are just too many characters to deal with and at times, it felt as if Vaughn was struggling to juggle the central relationship between McAvoy's Xavier and Fassbender's Magneto with the wealth of other mutant characters, appeasing comic book fan-boys and ticking all the modern blockbuster boxes.
The most modest of the films on the list costing a pittance at 50 million bucks, Super 8 is one of three movies out this summer that was produced by Stephen Spielberg, and this one has his trademarks all over it. J. J. Abrams managed to produce an atavistic, big-budget, 70's nostalgia piece with relatively few digital effects that didn't seem like an anachronism when held up against its peers. Like this year's Paul and Attack the Block, Super 8 is a love letter to Spielberg's supernatural master-classes of the late 70's and early 80's, complete with the same dynamic camera work, low-angled shots and the obligatory addition of a dog. Most importantly, however, it is a film that revolves around a child who is dealing with loss and struggling to find his place in a broken family, the sentimental backbone in much of Spielberg's work that elevated his films beyond being simply monster movies. Super 8 is perhaps not the most accomplished film in terms of directing, with homage too often turning into derivation and an irritating amount of zooming and lens flare, but, until the final act, it is a refreshing, character-led story about childhood that just happens to have some monsters in it.
It seems like there is little more to say about the Harry Potter franchise now that the line has been drawn beneath it. It is hardly surprising that the final installment went on to smash box office records, but what is surprising is the rate at which the quality of the filmmaking improved as they went along. When J. K. Rowling's first choice of director (Terry Gilliam) was vetoed by the studio, the subsequent hiring of Home Alone director Chris Columbus suggested that the series would be a critical car crash, but credit where credit's due, they saw the error of their ways and snapped up Alfonso Cuaron to direct The Prisoner of Azkaban and the films went from strength to strength. The shear wealth of British acting talent has made the films more than watchable even in their duller moments and the cast list of July's outing read like a who's who of Oscar and BAFTA winners. Warner deserve a pat on the back for choosing talented TV director David Yates to take on the last few films and he has proved that it pays to impress the audiences as well as the accountants.
Some of the more snooty press snorted at Kenneth Brannagh's decision to take on directing duties on Marvel's first outing for Thor, god of thunder, perhaps the least known member of next year's super group The Avengers. In a time when film makers and studios have been trying to crack the "Chris Nolan formula" by creating dark gothic sets, intense and moody characters and gritty, aligorical realism, Brannagh completely bucked the current trend and produced a film that is vivaciously operatic in scale and tone, culminating in a movie that was certainly the most fun couple of hours to be had in the cinema this summer. Newcomer, Home and Away's Chris Hemsworth is great in the title role, bringing the brawn and comic touch in equal measure, and supported by some equally theatrical turns from Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston. It is a great shame that Brannagh has decided not to return for the next installment, as Thor is the only recent Marvel movie that has had a sense of directorial personality.
The least heavily marketed of the summer blockbusters and with a release date firmly in the tail end of the season, the anticipation of ROTPOTA was somewhat lost in the giddy stampede of its contemporary's promotional campaigns. It was then, a nice surprise that British director Rupert Wyatt's reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise was as confident and well polished as it was. James Franco has cemented himself as a bankable leading man, despite having a slightly more casual approach than most, and it was great to see John Lithgow on song, but once again, there is one man who steals the show- step forward Andy Serkis. One day, in years to come, people will look back on the last decade as "the Serkis years", where it was proved that despite the advent of photorealistic digital effects, the human element is as crucial as any of the R & D that has been going on at Pixar and WETA over the last few years. As he did in Peter Jackson's King Kong, Serkis perfects every gesture, expression and nuance of the hyper intelligent ape, Caesar, creating a fully believable and empathic character who carries the movie on his shoulders. Despite not adhering to the continuity of the originals, the film pays tribute to the series wonderfully and sets itself up for a sequel with what is certainly the most spectacular action set piece of the year.
Next week, the top 5 worst blockbusters of the summer.