by Ann Hornaday | With the first day of school upon us, it’s a fitting time to look back on the past season in terms of lessons learned. Some of those lessons — other than it’s time finally to start taking women seriously both as characters and a lucrative market — have been confusing, confounding and even contradictory, an addled state of affairs reflected in an overall box office take that was around 15 percent lower than last year’s, despite movies of comparable quality in theaters. ¶ The following primer is less an explanation than a valiant attempt to make sense of the myriad mixed messages of Summer 2014.
Just when it looked like the story of this summer would be a downward-spiraling slump, two movies came to the rescue to stanch the bleeding: “Guardians of the Galaxy,” an extension of Marvel’s “Avengers” universe, featured Chris Pratt in the lead role, relegating the better-known Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel to voice roles as a talking raccoon and tree, respectively. But even with those challenges, “Guardians” became a surprise hit, raking in $450 million at the box office worldwide, outpacing “Transformers: Age of Extinction” in the United States.
The success of “Guardians” can be attributed to several factors, including overall good will toward Marvel, which for the most part has done a superb job of stewarding its properties. The film’s light tone also offered sweet, cheeky relief from the pall of self-seriousness that has fallen over too many comic-book flicks. But “Guardians” was also powered by a soundtrack of cheesy ’60s and ’70s pop hits that was catnip to viewers over 25, who accounted for a surprisingly solid chunk of the film’s audience.
That same population helped make “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” the second surprise hit of late summer, blowing away such bulked-up competition as “The Expendables 3.” That film, starring Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other I-Love-the-’80s stars (the human equivalent of the “Guardians” soundtrack) tanked, and not just because it had been downloaded millions of times by Internet pirates.
Unlike the first two “Expendables” movies, this installment was rated PG-13, an indication that the film’s producers and distributor didn’t get last year’s memo on “The Lone Ranger.” No constituency was served by this watered-down version, whether they were the baby boomers and Gen-Xers primed to enjoy some ramped-up R-rated action with their beloved childhood stars, or their kids — who have been digging the Turtles on Nickelodeon all along.
Last year, a little low-budget movie called “Mud” opened in late April to strong reviews, especially for a lead performance by an up-and-comer called Matthew McConaughey. The atmospheric, beautifully rendered coming-of-age story by Jeff Nichols wound up charming audiences as well, especially viewers over 25 who told their friends and made the film a sleeper hit of the summer, chugging along to $20 million over the course of 20 weeks.
This year’s version of that success story is “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s food-centric rom-com, which has already surpassed “Mud” at the box office with nearly $30 million and which was just wisely rereleased by its distributors to capitalize on its popularity with mature audiences who read reviews, listen to their friends and will eventually make a movie a hit, even if it isn’t on opening weekend.
Another variation on this theme is “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s intimate, audaciously inventive epic, which was filmed over 12 years. That intriguing hook, plus the year’s strongest reviews and murmurs of a shoo-in for a best picture Oscar nomination, have propelled “Boyhood” to indie hit status. Although audiences have so far been over 25, the film has also found purchase with young adults, who relate to its protagonist, who ages from 6 to 19 in the film. IFC, the distributor, plans to rerelease “Boyhood” on college campuses this fall to exploit that simpatico demographic and keep Oscar buzz alive. Brilliant.
“The Giver” should have been a sure thing. Lois Lowry’s speculative novel, about an adolescent rebelling against the dystopian society he’s grown up in, has become a staple of middle school reading lists for nearly 20 years, arguably launching the Genre That Ate Young Adult Literature, exemplified by such grim futuristic tales as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent.” On the heels of those hits, the movie version of “The Giver” should have been one, too. Instead, it underperformed when it opened in early August, the victim of the cruel irony that the very films it helped spawn now made it look hopelessly derivative. (Reportedly, fans were also dismayed by the filmmakers’ decision to make the hero 16 instead of 12 and to tinker with several of the plot’s details.)
“If I Stay,” an adaptation of Gayle Forman’s popular young-adult novel, may have fallen victim to similar poor timing: Although it benefited from attractive production values and appealing central performances from Chloe Grace Moretz and Jamie Blackley, the movie has been considered a modest disappointment, its core audience apparently all cried out from the similarly themed “The Fault in Our Stars” in June.
Last year, the Howard graduate made a quietly assured screen debut as Jackie Robinson in the biopic “42.” This summer, he really hit it out of the park in “Get On Up,” in which he delivered an electrifying, utterly convincing portrayal of the late R&B singer James Brown. Although “Get On Up” was skillfully structured and beautifully acted throughout, it didn’t manage to capitalize on the same yen for nostalgia as so many of its counterparts (see “Galaxy, Guardians of the” and “Turtles, Teenage”). But despite being criminally underseen, Boseman has proven his chops at channeling real-life characters with the same commitment and physical mimicry as Muni did playing such Great Men as Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola and Clarence Darrow.
Speaking of criminally underseen, why didn’t you go to “Edge of Tomorrow?” Was it the soap-opera mash-up of a title? (Warner Bros. thinks so: The film is called “Live Die Repeat” on its DVD box.) Was it those dreadful trailers that made it look like a sad, slightly silly Tom Cruise vanity project? Would “Edge of Tomorrow” have done better if the studio had positioned Emily Blunt’s B.A. heroine front and center and put Cruise in a raccoon costume?
For whatever reasons, the smart, stylish, surprisingly funny science-fiction adventure did poor business when it opened in the United States early this summer. Thanks to strong overseas sales, it will (barely) recoup its $200 million-plus production and marketing budget — again offering testimony to the international market, which is only gaining in importance as the years go by.