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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
The massive success of the superhero movie Wonder Woman has been one of the exceptions to the Summer box-office season. Along with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.2. the DC property has exceeded expectations and is destined to become a hugely profitable hit, which is in marked contrast to a number of high-profile misfires that have already crashed and burned this season. Tom Cruise's Mummy re-tread; the latest Pirates of the Caribbean; an ill-fated Baywatch re-do; another Alien chapter; an incomprehensible King Arthur attempt — all have tanked in varying degrees of disaster this summer, as film goers have turned surprisingly fickle with the new slate of sequels and remakes. Even the latest installment of the reliably profitable Fast and Furious series saw a sharp decline in its overall take.
Of course, it's worth noting that all these movies suck, so it's not too supernatural an undertaking to figure out their box-office failings; still, it's interesting to compare these underperforming movies to 2017's one great, unexpected hit. Disney's reverent, dutiful, live-action Beauty and the Beast made a dutiful, reverent half-billion this Spring, but that film wasn't "the" movie of 2017. Jordan Peele's audacious thriller Get Out, made on a miniscule budget and featuring a brilliantly realized original script, is "the" movie of the year; a great, unnerving horror film, Get Out effortlessly struck the nation's sore spot when it comes to notions of "enlightened" racial understanding. It's also scary as hell, which certainly helps attract an audience, and the $4.5 million budgeted film made over $175 million while attracting almost universal critical acclaim. It's that rare, timely movie that's actually ahead of its time, and it's noteworthy that a huge audience was more than willing to be carried along by it's discordant unpredictability.
So if you're an enthusiastic movie-goer who's just had his nerves jangled and sensibilities shaken by a daring new film, it's probably a bit of a drag then to be reduced to watching Captain Jack do his prancing shtick again or deal with Dwayne Johnson's tiresome, practiced, against-type "goofiness." The predictable pleasures of the old franchises and the old actors just doesn't have the same kick in Summer 2017, especially in the wake of the movie that keeps giving off the Thrill of the New. I'm guessing you're probably not going to see a lot of "think pieces" in the New York Times this Summer about what the new Transformers movie "means."
Of course, none of this is too upsetting for me personally, for I couldn't give a damn about most of the franchises and sequels, though I imagine I'll sneak away for a matinee of Wonder Woman, just to see what the fuss is about. But I haven't been a "blockbuster" guy in years; except for the occasional guilty pleasure night (Jurassic World once, Spectre another) I'll stay away from the "mega" movies and just wait for the oddball independent/foreign films that strike my interest. (Though it's curious — a number of independent movie makers have gotten their shot at a big budget "tentpole" movie after just completing a few small features. It's become a trend. Colin Trevorrow went from the mumblecore sci-fi film Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World, and Rian Johnson made the leap from the small-budgeted Looper to the next Star Wars episode. It's an interesting move by the studios, who'd you expect to want a more experience hand at the wheel, but it seems to be working, though Josh Trank, who had a hit with Chronicle, fell right off a cliff with the terrible Fantastic Four reboot in 2015. Interesting also that it was small-budgeted sci-fi films that became the "calling cards" for the directors that ultimately got them the big gigs.)
Actually, my current interest in movies shows that I have a much smaller scope than just wanting to watch interesting,independent/artsy titles; I've become sort of worryingly obsessed with a tiny sub-genre of films that can only be described as "Films that Feature Teenagers in 1979." Or, more accurately: "Films about My Exact Contemporaries." This is embarrassing for me, a total nostalgia/sentimentality/middle-age thing, for I was 18 in 1979 and for some reason I'm fascinated by movies that purportedly take place at that time when I was that age. And it's weird, it's not like I want to be 18 again, it's just that I'm absolutely taken by movies that use the era that is so redolent in my memory.
The Big 3 "1979" movies that I've been obsessing over lately are J.J. Abram's Super 8 (2011) and two from last year, Mike Mill's 20th Century Women and Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! (okay, that one takes place in1980, but close enough; I was 19). I like all the movies, Linklater's the most, but there are parts of all that don't jibe with my own memories of the time. (And please know, I'm not so joyless a person that I'd let that ruin my fun watching the movies — I recognize these films aren't documentaries.)
For instance — was punk music really that prevalent?? Both 20th Century Women and Everybody Wants Some!! feature story lines that show a pretty established punk music scene, but that doesn't ring many bells for me. I was aware of punk music and I liked it, but I was an outsider, and the aesthetic certainly didn't display itself too often, at least on my block. You'd occasionally see a mohawk or a safety pin through skin, but most of the girls tried to look like Farrah Fawcett and most of the guys looked like Kelso on "That 70s Show."
And boy, was it really such an "innocent" time then, before technology took over and supposedly ruined childhood? That's sort of the feeling you get from Super 8, which is sort of an ET meets Alien with a bit of small-town Norman Rockwell thrown in as well. It's a charming movie, all right, but I'm a tiny bit leery of all that dreamy romanticizing of the "simpler" era. Was it? It sure didn't feel that way. I remember very clearly suffering the usual things that kids tend to suffer from: confusion, fear, uncertainly. I have a lot of friends on Facebook, old guys my age, who like to post those infuriating memes about how much better and honest and "pure" childhood was for us "back then," before cell phones and social media and blah blah destroyed wonder and youth and curiosity, but I don't know — it just sounds like typical old-man generation trashing. I seem to recall wasting plenty of time watching endless TV reruns and doing absolutely nothing worthwhile on a perfect summer's day. But apparently all my friends were riding bikes and exploring caves and catching frogs and scuba diving in Old Man Miller's Pond or whatever.
For fun I decided to cue up a movie from 1979 to see how it compared to the recent ones. I chose Breaking Away, Peter Yates' comedy about 4 guys in Bloomington, Indiana who are trying to figure out where they belong after high school in a college town. When I saw the movie in '79, I remember dismissing it, in that annoying way that know-it-alls do, as shallow and inconsequential. Putting it on again was a revelation; it's delightful, and there's not a scene that doesn't ring true or bring back that era for me completely. It looks, sounds, and feels like everything I remember. Whenever I feel the need to time travel — which seems to be happening to me more and more, I'm learning — this is probably where I'll start.