Summer blockbusters round-up

I’ve got nothing against a big, expensive, loud summer blockbuster, even if they do predominantly seem to be American. There’s the odd Luc Besson monolith from France (though they’re normally made in English), the Harry Potter and Bond films have at least some British DNA, and there are occasional high-profile releases from the Far East and Russian. Yet it’s pretty much a given that most of the films that clutter up the multiplexes between June and September will be Hollywood product, sometimes with big stars, sometimes with virtual unknowns, but with lots of explosions, special effects and shouting.

This year (as well as last) seems to be especially poor. There were several released (Transformers 3, Pirates Of The Caribbean 4, The Hangover part 2) which I avoided because of the deafening clamour of hostility that greeted their expensive arrival in cinemas. It hasn’t been all bad – Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class was very strong and, despite the irrelevant 3D, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows pt 2 was probably the most purely enjoyable of the series – but it’s been more than a little disappointing. However, having had the chance to see Cowboys & Aliens, Captain America and Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes in quick succession, I feel that I’ve got more of a chance to offer some thoughts.

Cowboys & Aliens was thought by many people, myself included, to be some sort of wacky comedy when it was first announced. It’s not. Instead, Jon Favreau’s film errs on the side of seriousness and solemnity, perhaps unnecessarily so. Beginning with an atmospheric opening in which cowboy Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) awakes outside a small town with amnesia, only to find himself wanted by both the law and local cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), it loses interest more or less as soon as the generic aliens appear. It would have been vastly more interesting played as a period film noir. Craig and Ford do what’s expected of them and not much more, Olivia Wilde is serviceable enough as the mysterious woman who forms an attachment with Craig, there are some occasional moments of fun provided by a supporting cast including Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano, and the ending is the usual overstuffed series of explosions. Mildly rather than catastrophically disappointing.

Altogether worse is the latest entry in the Planet of the Apes series, ‘Rise Of The…’ Beginning with a fairly interesting premise – the ape, Caesar (played in motion capture by Andy Serkis, the go-to guy for this sort of thing) is the most sympathetic and interesting character on screen – it falls down thanks to an appalling script, terrible acting from a cast who should know better (James Franco, John Lithgow, Brian Cox), uncertain direction from The Escapist’s Rupert Wyatt, who seems torn between making a Frankenstein-esque study of man’s creation gaining sentience or a conventional blockbuster in which MONKEYS BLOW STUFF UP GOOD and moments of unintentional hilarity that undermine any serious purpose. Bizarrely some people seem to be acclaiming it as some sort of high watermark in the series, but these people might have become over-excited by the free bar before the screening.

If you’re looking for something superior, try the latest in the Marvel series,Captain America (portentously subtitled ‘The First Avenger’). Nobody’s ever going to mistake the story of how weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is transformed into a super-soldier and wages war against the dastardly Red Skull (Hugo Weaving) for high art, and it too suffers from the usual final act silliness and vapidity, as well as next to no sense of period. However, it scores points for an unusually talented supporting cast (Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell and Toby Jones) who manage to breathe life into characters that might have seemed flat on the page, some excellent one liners (apparently courtesy of a script polish from Joss Whedon) and boisterous direction from Joe Johnstone. For an unpretentious evening out, you could do far, far worse.

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