Stephen King on summer film’s four-star follies
I love the movies. Let’s get that up front. Have since I was a kid. And I’m from an unsophisticated school of thought that believes a movie (always a movie and never a film, even if it comes with subtitles) should be fun before it’s anything else: an ice cream cone for the brain. Because of this I especially like the summer season, when the studios shoot off so many of their big fireworks. And usually I have fun, because it doesn’t take a lot to please me. I mostly go to be entertained, not to learn the meaning of life.
That doesn’t make me — or the millions of moviegoers like me — dumb. I can revel in Glenn Close’s bitchy, over-the-top performance in ”The Stepford Wives” and still realize that the movie is mostly incoherent, although amiable and well-meant. I can enjoy Brian Cox as Agamemnon — and be blown away by Peter O’Toole’s melancholy Priam — in ”Troy” without believing Brad Pitt as Achilles in the slightest. I can easily set aside the wacky science in ”The Day After Tomorrow” and still point to the scene in which Jake Gyllenhaal dives under the rising water in the New York Public Library to use the old-fashioned pay telephone as my absolute favorite of the current season. (Honorable mention: Denzel Washington chewing a mind-control capsule out of a guy’s back in ”The Manchurian Candidate.”)
There’s nothing wrong with having fun, and I sneer at people who sneer at summer movies — in fact, I sneer at people who sneer at entertainment for entertainment’s sake. I feel sorry for them, too. Riding that high horse has got to be uncomfortable, especially with a stick up your butt.
Still, there’s been a steady critical gradeflation — what could even be called four-star fever — that makes me uncomfortable when I page through the entertainment section of The New York Times. Here ads for major studio movies now routinely appear trailing kite tails of critical superlatives, and not just from the usual suspects such as Earl ”I’ll Praise Anyone” Dittman or Rex ”If No One Else Liked It I Did” Reed. No, now it’s Richard Corliss of TIME, Claudia Puig of USA Today, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone, and a dozen other formerly reliable critics who seem to have gone remarkably soft — not to say softhearted and sometimes softheaded — in their old age. Even Roger Ebert, that fierce partisan of the movies, all too often seems to have one thumb up and one thumb up his…aw, never mind.
Do I want America’s critics to pan good movies? The hell I do; I’m the guy who likes almost all of ’em, remember? Or likes even the worst of them a little (Vin Diesel’s tireless glare in ”The Chronicles of Riddick,” for example). All I want is for critics to stop giving four stars — or even three — to two-star movies. In my book there have been 4 four-star movies already this summer (”Shrek 2,” ”Fahrenheit 9/11,” ”Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” ”The Manchurian Candidate”), and four’s a feast. What’s wrong with saying that the rest (with the exception of the odious ”Van Helsing,” which did have the salubrious effect of making even ”Catwoman” look good) are perfectly acceptable summer time-passers and let it go at that?
I mean, look here — is ”Spider-Man 2” really a four-star movie? I love Sam Raimi’s work and feel the same way about Michael Chabon’s (Chabon had a hand in creating 2’s screen story), but I wince at the idea of putting this movie in the same critical category as ”The Godfather” and ”Unforgiven.” Sure, I loved those dizzying shots of Spidey swinging through the steel canyons of the city. Of course I loved Doc Ock clomping his way up the side of a skyscraper (while not believing the narrative source of those tentacles in the slightest). But let’s be real. The emotional core of this story is a girl who’s in a snit because her boyfriend keeps missing her play. And just what’s the deal with that show, anyhow? I can see a revival of ”The Importance of Being Earnest” for the senior class play at Centerville High somewhere in Nebraska, but on Broadway? That’s harder to believe than Dr. Octavius welding tentacles to his back in the computer age.
I passed a perfectly enjoyable evening at ”Spider-Man 2” — the night it opened, in fact, and the theater was crammed to the rafters with equally appreciative Spidey fans. But I remember Sam Raimi’s first feature film, the no-budget ”Evil Dead,” which premiered at the Cannes film festival in 1981, when Sam was so young he looked more like a waiter in a Catskills summer resort than an auteur. That was before million-dollar CGI effects, and when Sam wanted to do his version of Steadicam, he simply bolted his camera to a beam. Then he and a couple of friends grabbed the beam and ran like hell. It was crude, but it worked.
When you looked at ”Evil Dead,” you knew you were looking at low-budget. When you look at ”Spider-Man 2,” you know you’re looking not just at high-budget but at top-end Hollywood Humvee budget. Nothing wrong with that, either. But ”Evil Dead” had a raw and horrifying beauty that has stayed with me for 23 years, and in my mind that makes it a true four-star movie. ”Spider-Man 2”? Very cool, but I doubt if I’ll be able to remember many of the details by the time next June rolls around with a new load of summer pix. But that’s okay, because — like ”Troy”; ”Dodgeball”; ”I, Robot”; and ”The Day After Tomorrow” — it’s a pretty good movie.
What do you think? Do you usually agree with movie critics? Post your response below.