…I mean, did we even have a summer movie season? Things are still so goddamn weird; theaters were technically open, and blockbusters were technically shown in them, but there was still such a Twilight Zone-y vibe to everything. Everything that I could see on the big screen, I did, and yet I almost have a hard time believing that anything was open.
Still, in spite of how it sometimes felt, new movies did come out this summer, some of which were shown in theaters and everything, which is much more than can be said for last year – even if, like last year, everything still feels like it should have an asterisk next to it, to denote strangeness.
Of all the movies I ended up seeing in a theater this summer, THE highlight by far was Raging Fire, the new Donnie Yen action vehicle that doubled as the final film from Benny Chang. I’m a huge action fan, but movies like this don’t come out in the theaters that often; Chinese and South Korean imports are usually regulated to DTV releases. But this came to a cinema, and it was electrifying. The plot is incredibly paint-by-numbers – Donnie Yen is a cop, he testified against another cop, and now that guy wants kung fu revenge. But it totally works, because Hong Kong knows how to shoot action. There’s a part early on where someone kicks a whole phone booth into a guy. It fucking rules. Everyone loses their mind about Tom Cruise doing all the stuff he does at his ever-increasing age, but Donnie Yen is only a year younger, and the range of motion he still has is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
The action in Raging Fire was so good, that it did unfortunately have a knock-on effect where it ended up slightly ruining the fights in Shang-Chi for me. Granted, the movie still had plenty else to recommend it; beyond the obvious positive of such a big blockbuster having a predominantly Asian cast, the film itself was much better than the MCU has been in a while. Quips were to a minimum, the main character wasn’t another tired Tony Stark clone, and the cinematography actually had color in it! (the back half of the MCU has been SO GREY) But everyone was going on about how brilliant the action was in this movie, and…I mean, they’re right, but only in comparison to the rest of the MCU, where the house style is “cut every half second and shake the camera.” And Shang-Chi is definitely better than that; here, sometimes the camera waits three whole seconds before cutting!
Still, it was definitely upper-tier MCU. Likable characters, affable tone, and, best of all, a main character who hadn’t already died in a previous movie! Yeah, whatever my reservations about Shang-Chi, it was a hell of a lot better than the way-too-little-way-too-late Black Widow solo movie, one of those blockbusters where it feels kinda weird even calling it a “blockbuster,” seeing as how almost everyone ended up seeing it on TV. That’s actually the main legacy of the movie, given how much the whole conversation around the film has been dominated by Scarlett Johannson’s lawsuit against Disney. Partially, this is because it’s Disney getting sued, and any opportunity to see them get taken down a peg is well worth it. But mostly this is because the Black Widow solo movie was a long wait for nothing – it takes the character fans have been waiting to see in her own movie for over a decade, and it sticks her in a movie where most of the climax is taken up by Ray Winstone monologuing at her in the worst Russian accent you’ve ever heard. And she can’t even punch him, because he smells weird.
Disney didn’t have a great summer, all in all. Luca was one of those unfortunate movies to have their theatrical release cancelled in order to be dropped straight onto streaming, a fate previously met by the likes of the Artemis Fowl movie. Unfortunately, like Artemis Fowl, streaming is exactly where this movie feels like it belongs. It’s not godawful by any means, but it’s extremely low-calorie, to the point where I’m pretty sure I forgot the whole thing five seconds after the credits rolled. That’s still way better than The Jungle Cruise, a film I was actively forgetting about while I was still watching it. Literally the only halfway memorable thing about that movie is the Jack Whitehall character, who at this point has to be the seventeenth “first canonically gay Disney character who never actually says they’re gay out loud.” He, Josh Gad from the Beauty and the Beast remake, the cop from Onward and those two randos from the end of Rise of Skywalker should start a support group.
It’s a weird state of affairs when Cruella is somehow the best movie Disney released this summer. Almost as weird as “the Cruella de Vil prequel movie” turning out to be not totally godawful, and actually way more fun than anyone was expecting. Granted, given the usual quality of these live-action Disney remakes, I think at this point people are just impressed whenever the camera is in focus.
Speaking of more fun than it had any right to be, Free Guy! Based on the marketing (which, keep in mind, we’ve been seeing for over a year) I fully expected something that would drive me insane with CGI oversaturation and naked corporate synergy. And there’s a bit of that (the effects of the Disney merger become very apparent in the back half of this film, and it’s disgusting), but for the most part, this is a shockingly charming and affable film, given how deliriously expensive it was to make. And look; I do still prefer the made-in-someone’s-backyard sensibilities of something like Spy Kids 3, but this is actually way closer in spirit to that than it is to something like Ready Player One, which all the trailers were reminding me of, much to my horror.
Speaking of horror…going off of what Google is telling me, summer 2021 began June 20th and ended September 22nd, which means that Dear Evan Hansen – released September 24th – came in juuuuust to late to count for this article. I’d like to talk about it, just so that I could join everyone else in making fun of geriatric-ass Ben Platt as the least convincing high schooler since the “How do you do, fellow kids?” guy, but I can’t. I can talk about In The Heights, another big summer movie that ended up getting slightly hijacked by outside conversations, this time about colorism. Just as a movie, it’s alright, if a bit compressed (probably unavoidable given how they’re adapting a whole-ass stage show to a two hour movie).
Of the three big horror movies released this summer – Candyman, Malignant, and Old – my favorite by far was Malignant. I’m already a huge James Wan fan (if you’ve never seen Death Sentence, then for the love of god, watch Death Sentence), and it was a hell of a trip seeing his gonzo energetic style back making a horror movie, only this time with the kind of budget you only get once you’ve helmed a superhero flick. Old was hilarious and weird, which, yeah (I wonder if we’d be somehow disappointed if Shyamalan ever went back to making consistently good movies?) The Candyman remake was really interesting; as a script, it was a very smart update/expansion on themes present in the original, and the way it incorporated those themes was very clever. As a horror movie, though, it was a little too clinical, never quite reaching the disorienting heights of the 1992 classic.
And even though it came out too early to count as a “summer” movie, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about A Quiet Place Part II (or as I’m choosing to call it, 2 Quiet 2 Place), since it was among the first perpetually delayed releases that made everyone go, “Oh shit, this is real,” and its release this year was positioned to mark a “return to normalcy.” That didn’t really work, both because a whole lot of people are still unsure about the whole “going back to cinemas” thing, and also because the film itself is a mixed bag. A Quiet Place The First One (new official title) gained a lot of its power from how direct and simple it was; the sequel, meanwhile, has an incredible opening sequence, a really really fun finale, and a whole bunch of dead air in the middle. It’s really weirdly paced, and a lot of it feels like it’s just padding for time.
What else? The Suicide Squad had an uphill battle trying to wash away the bad taste of the previous attempt; by all accounts it was unsuccessful, since this thing made like no money. But at least the film itself was decent, if nowhere near the level of James Gunn’s previous movies (I’m not even talking Guardians here; for my money, Super with Riann Wilson is the best superhero thing Gunn ever made). Netflix did a kind of interesting thing where they released a whole-ass film trilogy just weeks apart from each other; Fear Streets 1, 2, and 3 dropped concurrently, making the whole thing feel like a TV show. Which was fitting, since the movies themselves felt a lot like they’d been produced by the CW. The Green Knight was an art movie that overcame its pretensions to actually be good. Stillwater was a thriller that spent way more time on character development than thrills. I loved it, but I can see how the unconventional approach turned off some people. The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It suffered from the lack of James Wan, but at least it was better than Curse of La Llorona.
Also there was a Space Jam sequel, a Boss Baby sequel, and a Tom and Jerry movie. I didn’t see any of them either.