Conversation: A Look at Summer’s Movies

BY Tom LeGro  June 18, 2010 at 1:54 PM EDT

Summer is usually the season for sure box office bets — action blockbusters, sequels to big-name hits (more than a few this year) and new remakes of well-loved classics. But early signs suggest movie tickets for the usual fare may be a harder sell than usual for Hollywood.

For more on what distinguishes this year’s lineup of big budget flicks — ‘Toy Story 3’ — as well as some ideas about great, smaller titles — ‘Winter’s Bone’ — I talked to Ann Hornaday, movie critic for the Washington Post:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me on the phone now is Ann Hornaday, film critic of the Washington Post. Hello, Ann.

ANN HORNADAY: Hello, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what does the summer movie season mean these days? Has the thinking changed about what comes out in the summer, or is it still the blockbuster, lighter fair, what is it these days?

ANN HORNADAY: You know, it has become more and more blockbuster heavy, and the term of art used in Hollywood is the tent pole pictures. This is when they bring out their guaranteed moneymakers to kind of support the rest of the year. But you asked what it means this year, and I think they’ve had a lot of surprises this year in terms of things that haven’t worked that were supposed sure things. We’ve seen more and more sequels and sort of franchise extenders and spinoffs and things that are adapted from quote-unquote presold properties, and again those have conventionally been thought of as sure things because they have these built in audiences.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I mean that’s not new right? But you’re saying this year it just doesn’t seem to be working?

ANN HORNADAY: No and this year we’ve seen more than ever — I think Hollywood Reporter made account of 11 sequels or franchise pictures in all — which I think is a new high in terms of the number that we’ve seen of unoriginal properties. And a lot of them haven’t done all that well. I mean, “Iron Man 2” on its opening weekend, I don’t think it performed particular up to expectations, it has gone on to earn a lot of money at the box office. But something like “Sex in the City 2,” I think has not met expectations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sort of universally panned wasn’t it?

ANN HORNADAY: Pretty much, but that should be critic proof because it has such a strong constituency, you know, and it’s devoted fans. And then “Shrek 3,” kind of the same thing. ‘Robin Hood,’ that’s a Hollywood —

JEFFREY BROWN: Well that sort came and went rather quickly didn’t it? And sort of critically a little bit drubbed as well.

ANN HORNADAY: Yeah, I think that got kind of middling and piddling reviews, but again, Russell Crowe, you know, reaching back to the gladiator spectacle picture with him in it. I think they probably thought would do a lot better than has, so there have been a lot of sobering wakeup calls I think throughout the summer. And sort of week to week we’ve seen the box office soften a little bit compared to last year, and it’s softened between 10 percent and 20 percent, so they really have yet to sort of hit that big break out hit, of course with the exception of “Iron Man 2,” which has really chugged along I think to do quite well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And isn’t it just today, “Toy Story 3.”

ANN HORNADAY: And that’s a wonderful example. And some analysts have credited or blamed the softening of the box office on the number of sequels, but I think “Toy Story 3” proves it doesn’t matter if it’s a sequel or not, it’s whether it’s a good movie. Even sequels exist on their own as movies, and they should work on their own merits as films as “Toy Story 3” does. I mean, it’s a wonderful movie. It’s true to the principles of the first two and yet delivers a new story and fresh characters and original ideas within it, so it really shouldn’t matter if something is a sequel or not.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re talking about big blockbusters and sequels, how about sleepers or smaller films? One you and I have talked about and you wrote about today is called ‘Winter’s Bone.’

ANN HORNADAY: Yes, this is a movie that broke out at Sundance — it won an award at the Sundance Film Festival — by a filmmaker named Debra Granik. If people sort of hark back to recent films like “Precious” or “Frozen River” or even ‘Wendy and Lucy,’ you know, these sort of hard bitten tales of young women really overcoming a lot of adversity to reach a goal. It’s definitely within that tradition, but the big news for me on this movie is this actress, Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the lead character who is trying to find her father in order to save her family and her home. And it really kind of takes her through the backwoods of the Ozarks Mountains and a very unrelentingly grim journey, but she is absolutely mesmerizing. And so, you know, summertime is always great chance for people to kind of catch up with littler films. My favorites are Nicole Holofcener “Please Give” with Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt. It’s funny, it’s observant, it’s sweet, it’s about a family in New York dealing with, you know, materialism and wanting and real estate and loyalty and things like that, and it’s just a really special movie. There is one coming out called “The Kids Are All Right” about a family in California with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore — a wonderful little picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I do want to ask you about the world of documentaries. We happen to have in our area here — Silverdoc Festival is about to start — but it’s a reminder that it’s a very vibrant world of nonfiction film out there that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

ANN HORNADAY: Oh, it sure is, and there are so many wonderful ones, especially at Silverdoc’s this year. There are some wonderful documentaries coming out over the summer. “Restrepo” about the Afghanistan war is a really strong contender that is also in Silverdocs, but the one that really has blown me away the most is called “The Tillman Story,” about Pat Tillman, and I believe that is coming into theaters toward the end of August. But people should absolutely circle that on their calendar and make a note of that and make sure to see it when it’s out, because it’s a really, really well done film, not just about his tragic death in 2004 and the way the government kind of propagandized it, but it’s really a portrait of a family, you know, trying to let go and trying to resolve and unresolved loss, and also just the subtleties of mythmaking and iconography and how we make people into heroes. It’s just a brilliantly done piece of documentary film.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Before I let you go, anything you are really looking forward to or that you’ve already seen that we must see? You mentioned a few of your favorites, but what’s coming?

ANN HORNADAY: Well, you know, speaking of the sequelitis that everybody seems to be suffering from, there are a couple of original pictures coming out. One is “Inception” by Christopher Nolan with Leo DiCaprio in it, and a lot of people have their hopes pinned to that one. Nolan, of course, did “Memento” and a couple of years ago did “The Dark Night.” He’s obviously a technically proficient film maker. I’m not a huge fan of those movies but you know —

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I’ve seen the trailer for that several times, and I’m still not even quite sure what kind of film it is.

ANN HORNADAY: I know. Exactly. And I think that’s exactly what they want. I mean, they have been very canny about holding it back and very cherry of showing it to critics because there is apparently a big third act spoiler that they don’t want to have leaked out. So that always heightens — and also “Salt,” you know with Angelina Jolie, that political thriller. That looks like it could be really pretty good. So, you know, and there is a Julia Roberts with “Eat Pray Love,” which maybe she’ll get yet another second, third, fourth, fifth win to a really enduring career.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that comes with a constituency, bringing back to what we were talking about earlier.

ANN HORNADAY: Exactly. Yes. Exactly, so you know, we’re about half way through so we’ll see how we go.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Summer films with Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post. Thanks so much.

ANN HORNADAY: Thank you, Jeff.