September 23, 2020

My Favorite Summer Blockbuster

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There’s a kind of movie where not even five minutes have passed yet you know you’re in love. I had just started seriously dating somebody and by the time “Wall-E” was over, I contemplated opening up the relationship. The movies tend to overdo the end of the world. The demise matters less than the resulting spectacle or mounting suspense. And the aftermath is always a dirge. But certain filmmakers have a knack for the womp and cadence of doom. The “Mad Max” movies, for instance, turned apocalypse into heavy metal. “Wall-E” turns catastrophe into waltz.

Death is central to the best of what Pixar can do — actual death but also some of its figurative counterparts: moving to a new city, monsters, maturation. “Coco” insists, hauntingly, that death can occasion a musical. So, in its way, does “Wall-E.” The fairy tale at its center obeys the long tradition of such stories and begins with the death of a mother: Earth. Having junked it, humans have fled to some space colony operated by a network of machines and figure-headed by unstable live-action images of the chief executive (Fred Willard). The planet now belongs to a chirping roach and a Wall-E-brand rolling box that compacts the skyscraping trash. It zooms around playing “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” from “Hello, Dolly!” like the Radio Raheem of lonely bliss.

One day — it’s rarely night — a spaceship deposits a sleek, white pod — an EVE — whom Wall-E would like to make his waltz partner. But she’s all laser-blasts and business speak. “Directive?” Eve asks, like one of those consulting-firm automatons. Her mission ends with blunt efficiency that lets the people who made this movie concoct a stretch of hilariously desperate physical comedy. Sleep mode does little to diminish her resistance to his romance.

“Wall-E” is an ecologist’s lament with Buster Keaton’s chops. This banged-up machine cares more for the planet than we apparently did. (The movie might be too ready to return us to the bright side.) When Wall-E finds himself aboard Willard’s space colony, the lament expands into farce. The ex-earthlings are now jumpsuit dumplings, enbubbled and strung out on video calls and streaming programs, drifting around that ship like appetizers on self-serving trays. In an instant, a movie I adored for its visual eternities, for its genius with heft and ease, tarnish and gleam, had found another level: liturgical prophecy.

Really. This is a movie that knows its bible. Not just the way Eve looks like something Apple made but also its wariness of false idolatry. “Wall-E” opened in summer 2008, before the iPad, when Twitter was just becoming a thing, as the country was mired in another year of double war, as presidential primaries were barbed back when “barbed” seemed like the worst that things could get. “The Dark Knight” would arrive the following month and capture the mood with on-the-nose bleakness. In the meantime, there was a comedy about a box who worships a pod and people who worship electronic distraction above all else, so much that the dozens of human babies that go sloshing around this movie have always blown my mind. How’d their parents get those Sunday clothes off?

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When “The Avengers” came out in 2012, it occupied a paradoxical position. Though other such films had landed, it was the start of the supersized superhero film, the intersection of various hero worlds, and it was the effective beginning of the blockbuster goliath that continues growing: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the film also signaled the end of more streamlined narratives and engagement with character development. It heralded a commitment to the franchise over individual properties, and subsequent films would be bloated with garish, shallow action sequences and poor plotting.

I saw “The Avengers” twice, opening day and a week and a half later, right after my college graduation, freshly out of my cap and gown. So, admittedly, some of this praise wears the gloss of nostalgia, but “The Avengers” struck the perfect balance between high-stakes action and pitch-perfect comedy — chemistry that the sequels would fail to emulate.

The film was a showcase for the director and screenwriter Joss Whedon’s flair for dialogue and keen sense of comic timing. The best scenes depict the relationships among the heroes, with Whedon’s quips sprinkled amid vast, lively brawls. He also provides a satisfying variety of battle scopes: wild, whopping slugfests, like the one between the Hulk and Thor, are juxtaposed with intricately choreographed close-quarters fights, like that between Black Widow and Hawkeye. Whedon takes pleasure in the excess while keeping a rein on it. The recruitment of each Avenger, the clash of egos, the temporary scattering of the team — all of it beautifully builds to a climactic battle where the film lovingly engages with the grandiosity of its subjects.

Because even more so than the movies that preceded it, “The Avengers” feels like a film about the birth of legends. Several scenes provide absorbing panoramas of the heroes moving as if they’re of the same mind. One mesmerizing sequence follows one hero to another as they cross paths on the battlefield.

The movie’s relevance as a cultural artifact cannot be overstated. And I use the term “artifact” here not to mean some fossil removed from our time but rather a token — a treasure, in fact — revealing what fandom was, what it had been before and what it would grow to be in subsequent years.

“The Avengers,” with its indulgent action shots of the heroes teamed up, posed or fighting side by side, synthesizes the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood with the earnest heart of fandom, giving us something epic to see.

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“Here, watch this.”

I was handed an unmarked VHS cassette. “What is it?” I asked.

“Just watch it.”

It was June 1999 and I was working for a company that made promotional videos for summer camps. I was on location at a camp and, after a day of shooting, was hanging out with a few camp staffers at their cabin. One of them had received this videotape from a friend in Los Angeles. I started watching and wondered, “is this someone’s home movies?” As I continued, the shaky footage of young documentarians lost in the woods was becoming more and more creepily unsettling. And as it reached its chilling conclusion, I was shook. I remember saying out loud, “Please let there be credits, please let there be credits,” ANY indication that what I had just seen wasn’t real. There were credits (thank God) and yes, I had just watched “The Blair Witch Project” without having any clue what it was, one night at a summer camp in the woods. I didn’t have any idea that it would go on to become a cultural phenomenon.

I retreated back to the cabin where I was staying and turned out the light. Then I turned it right back on. There was no way I was sleeping alone in the dark that night.

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Little was conventional about Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 film, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which helped make it the highest-grossing film that summer and the year’s second top box office draw (behind “Rain Man”). This seedy drawing of Tinseltown took inspiration from film noir, and its story was set in the golden age of Hollywood studios, many of which were then in decline.

In this world, humans live next door to their animated counterparts; Donald Duck and Daffy Duck perform as a dueling piano act in a nightclub where Betty Boop works as a cigarette girl; and the film’s unlikely heroes are a comically mismatched pair: a hard-boiled detective, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), grieving his brother’s murder, and a hyperactive toon, Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer), who has been falsely accused of murder. Eddie and Roger’s search for the truth uncovers a web of conspiracies fit for movies like “Chinatown,” “The Maltese Falcon” or “L.A. Confidential.” In a precursor of the many blockbusters to come, Hoskins acted out his scenes without Roger Rabbit, who would later be drawn in postproduction (much like today’s C.G.I. characters).

Christopher Lloyd, as the villain Judge Doom, gives a fearsome performance augmented by animated flourishes, like when his eyes pop out into cartoon daggers. The shark in “Jaws” and the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” were made to look real, but even in its animated unreality, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” managed to scare a fair amount of viewers.

It must have been a licensing nightmare to bring all those Looney Tunes and other cartoon characters into the frame. Not to mention the film’s stunning technical achievements in merging the cartoon world with the real one. With a budget of about $70 million (about $150 million in today’s dollars), it was one of the most expensive movies to be made at the time.

Although folding animation into reality is as old as Walt Disney’s “Alice Comedies” and Max Fleischer’s Koko the Clown of the 1920s, Zemeckis made it seem as if the animated characters interacted with the physical world. When Eddie hides Roger in a sink of water, it splashes. When an unfortunate toon is melted by the cartoon-killing “dip,” the physical concoction smokes and bubbles.

Hollywood will likely never make a movie that looks like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” again. Why spend millions of dollars getting the hand-drawn characters just right when a computer can fix things in a click? Thankfully, with its unique aesthetic and engrossing whodunit narrative, this retro noir live action-animation hybrid can still impress audiences today.

Rent or buy it on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu or YouTube.

Even if you don’t believe that “Speed” is the greatest of all summer action-a-thons, consider that it might be the purest. It became a gargantuan word-of-mouth success without relying on stars. Though Keanu Reeves wasn’t an unknown in 1994, he hardly had the marquee cachet of a Schwarzenegger or a Stallone, and many of us remember the movie as Sandra Bullock’s breakout. Instead, its appeal rested in the visceral simplicity of a premise — bus can’t brake — that invites an hour of constant motion and mayhem. And that’s not counting the elevator and subway bookends.

To the extent that “Speed” relies on special effects (the 50-foot gap in the freeway was an illusion), they are not themselves the draw, like dinosaurs or aliens. The stakes and dangers are tangible to anyone who’s been in a vehicle. Directing his first feature, the veteran cinematographer Jan de Bont employs real locations and — to a non-Angeleno, at least — a broadly followable sense of geography. Beyond the mind-blowing difficulty of maintaining continuity, the reliance on civic infrastructure grounds “Speed” in time and place, making it an experiment that is difficult to repeat. A reboot wouldn’t necessarily have a brand-new, unopened freeway, the 105, to play with.

The irresistibility of “Speed” relies on its blend of ingenuity (the progression of obstacles of traffic and physics) and meatheadedness (at one point, Dennis Hopper’s bomb-making villain, Howard Payne, actually wonders aloud if a decision was “a little hammy”). It never fails to give me chills when Payne, on the phone with Reeves’s Jack Traven, tells him, “There’s a bomb on a bus,” and the camera closes in on Hopper’s face, accompanied by a little boom from Mark Mancina’s score.

Their conversation makes no sense: “There are rules, Jack.” Why are there rules? Why would Payne tell Traven the bus’s location, giving him a chance to try dismantling the bomb (before accidentally puncturing the gas tank)? But such illogic is irrelevant. Where it counts, “Speed” is a model of wit (Traven and his partner make their entrance in an airborne car) and symmetry (Payne tries to crush Traven’s head against the top of the elevator shaft; Traven later decapitates Payne on the moving subway.) And while “Speed” shouldn’t get much credit for social commentary, note that in this post-1992 riots production, multiple passengers regard the L.A.P.D. warily.

But who cares about substance, really, when “Speed” has you holding your breath, 26 years later, as Bullock puts on the bus’s turn signal for a wide right?

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Not long ago, in the Before Times, talk of masks conjured one precise image in my mind: a snot green face, bald as a ball of Play-Doh, contorted into a roguish smile. And Jim Carrey was the man behind “The Mask,” that deranged comedy about a spineless bank clerk named Stanley Ipkiss who, upon donning an ancient mask, finds his most wanton appetites unleashed.

The movie was the highest grossing of Carrey’s three blockbusters in 1994 — the others were “Dumb and Dumber” and “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” — and all three helped catapult Carrey to goofball stardom. The story also ushered in what would become Carrey’s signature part: the dual role of straight man and loony maniac. Like Dr. Jekyll, Ipkiss transforms into a frenzied alter ego, a character foible that would be similarly replicated in “Me, Myself & Irene,” “Liar Liar” and “Bruce Almighty.”

This binary form befits a movie that, in style and tone, takes cartoons as its model. “The Mask,” directed by Chuck Russell, was based on a Dark Horse comic, and its special effects (overseen by Industrial Light and Magic) are all googly eyeballs and lolling tongues, steamrollered torsos and twirling blurs. The movie pays overt homage to Looney Tunes: Pictures of Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and the Tasmanian Devil adorn Ipkiss’s apartment and, in one scene, he even plays a videotape of Tex Avery’s “Screwball Classics 2.”

A year after sitting through the gritty nihilism of one of last year’s blockbusters, “Joker,” I found rewatching “The Mask” to be refreshing. In his yellow zoot suit, Ipkiss is less a doom-and-gloom antihero than a child of Avery’s animated golden age, and his world — a made-up city where the grooviest nightclub plays swing music — reflects his 1940s flair. The movie also offered a debut role to Cameron Diaz, who, as a blonde bombshell love interest, is as heavily ogled as Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood.

In one of my favorite scenes, Ipkiss theatrically feigns death in the arms of a foe, only to right himself and accept an Oscar for the performance. At the time, Carrey called his character “Fred Astaire on acid.” Zinging between references faster than I can keep track, “The Mask” feels like cinema itself on acid.