I caught up on many summer movies over the holiday weekend. What follows is some scattered thoughts…

The Lone Ranger

I think director Gore Verbinski, writers Ted Elliot, Terry Rossio and Justin Haythe were going for a revisionist riff on the old school Lone Ranger story. And also for a slapstick adventure in the mold of Pirates of the Caribbean. And also a dark horror story.

What they made is a mess. First off, the film does not need its c. 1930’s frame story, in which a kid dressed as the Lone Ranger wanders into a San Francisco fair side-show and meets the agéd version of Tonto (Johnny Depp). I like the idea of the story having an unreliable narrator, but the movie does nothing with it.

Because of the retrograde Tonto character, the film goes out of its way to show the other Native Americans as noble, moral beings. But it can’t make them intelligent or active, because then it would spoil a convoluted silver mining/railroad conspiracy plot. And, by the way, if you’re going to make a movie with a railroad baron as villain, you had better measure up to Once Upon a Time in the West.

Verbinski can’t even measure up to his animated Western, Rango, which did a better job of tweaking Western clichés than The Lone Ranger. While there are some beautiful shots, fun ideas (Silver as wacky Spirit horse), and a brilliantly-staged climactic set-piece, the movie suffers from a distinct lack of cartooniness. Early on we see a train derail and senselessly kill many innocent people. The movie is filled with R-rated violence done with PG-13 amounts of blood. But it is still R-rated violence. A movie where a man eats another man’s heart, even if it only shown in a reflection, is too intense for family audiences. This is the same issue that I had with Jack the Giant Killer.

Disney famously battled Verbinski over the budget on this film. This movie still looked plenty expensive to me. I wish, instead, they had battled him over the tone of the film. More Pirates, less The Ring.

White House Down

This movie was as dumb as I expected, which is to say, pretty dumb. Not that I won’t admit to sometimes laughing with the film. But I still laughed at it more.

Several of the people involved in Independence Day were involved it its making, and it would seem to be in much the same mold. But look closer. My wife and I immediately watched Independence Day after seeing White House Down. White House Down is a pale shadow. White House Down, I’ve seen Independence Day. Independence Day is a favorite of mine. You sir, are no Independence Day

While both are corny, winky blockbusters with stakes that grow to encompass the fate of humankind, the writing in White House Down lacks the same wit. Say what you will about having a man who was probed by aliens fly his plane into an alien ship’s metaphorical butthole, but it sure beats having a White House tour guide pummel a bad guy with an antique German clock. Channing Tatum (as a bodyguard who finds himself taking on terrorists) and Jamie Foxx (doing a riff on Obama) are both charming and fun. But the level of the material doesn’t give the audience much credit, let alone their talents.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare White House Down to Independence Day. Better to compare it to Olympus Has Fallen, which a few months earlier took a serious approach to the same premise. Alas, I haven’t seen it.

I’m So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros)

The Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar returns to his roots with this silly, fabulous farce about an airplane which is unable to land. You do not need to know about the specifics of Spain’s economic woes to enjoy this film, but if you happen to realize that the plane is a metaphor — the Economy Class is drugged, the stewards are high, the banker is trying to get away, and the nation’s leading dominatrix fears assassination from the King — you’ll find the film works on a deeper, intellectual level as well. As powerful as Peninsula Flight 2549 is as a metaphor, the most powerful metaphor is the real life Toledo airport, a financial boondoggle that currently sits unused.

Almodóvar realizes this, and exploits it for the climax of the film, which will soon find many of our characters having a giant metaphorical bath. Or is that white soapy stuff representing something else?

The film has a long digression where a passenger in the air reconciles with his mistress on the ground. It seems not to much fit with the story. But perhaps we can give Pedro some credit and imagine that he has a larger point about telling the truth — in love, in economics — in mind.

Before Midnight

The leading candidate for my favorite film of the year. At once a surprising twist to the franchise of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset that preceded it, and a perfectly believable continuation.

Director Richard Linklater, writing with lead actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, gives us a stage-play structure (one that observes, more or less Aristotle’s unities). Supposedly he shot coverage for many of the scenes that play out in long takes. But he and series editor Sandra Adair did not need them, thanks to the cast’s virtuosic, sustained performances.

If I have a critique, it is that the movie feels slanted to get both the male and female audience on the side of Ethan Hawke’s Jesse over Delpy’s Celine. But not yet being forty or having gone through some of their life experiences, perhaps I will see the film differently later in my life. This series of films is like the Up series (the latest of which just became available on Netflix streaming, and which I highly recommend) in the sense that we can see the characters grow, even as we ourselves grow.

That, in itself, is a great pleasure. But on top of that, the films have much to add about love, relationships, parenthood and creative fulfillment.

World War Z

World War Z is another movie that, like Lone Ranger, has no business being rated PG-13. But at least it takes its violence seriously. This is a damn scary film.

It famously had a whole new third act re-written by Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard. (The original story is by Matthew Michael Carnahan and J. Michael Straczynski based on the graphic novel by Max Brooks.) I could tell. Pitt’s Gerry character wakes up in medical lab and people are looking at him funny. Nevermind that the Israeli soldier he came in with could have explained everything. Nevermind that they could have just used his satellite phone earlier.

I didn’t mind the Resident Evil-style sequence of them breaking into B-wing of the lab, but I hated that the film shows the security camera could ‘nod’ yes or no, but they don’t have Pitt’s character realize this. My informal survey of others who have seen the film has turned up no one who didn’t realize this.

But the main flaw of the film, in my opinion, lies outside the ret-conned final act. Why does Gerry, this man we’ve established is smart and resourceful, not bother to phone his boss, The Under-Secretary General, at every step along the journey? Sure, let him phone his wife and kids (who basically exit the story after the first act), but let him also share all these clues he’s finding about the outbreak with the team of smart scientists back on the carrier. Duh.

I liked the Israel sequence, especially the “Tenth Man” speech, but wouldn’t word have gotten out that they were building a wall well before all world-wide communication ceased? Wouldn’t they have figured out that the zekes are drawn by sound like everyone else Gerry meets? Director Marc Forster directs with such intelligence and visceral realism, it provokes you to think about these things.

As good as the action in this film is, it is terrible at the procedural elements. Skip this, see Contagion.

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Agree? Disagree? How would you re-write some of the summer’s duds?