What did we learn at the movies this summer?

By Tony Sheppard

Some movies are blatant in their messages while others are more subtle – but sometimes you have to ponder a season or more’s worth of stories to find a recurring theme. One topic that seemed more pervasive than others, not surprisingly, was the economy – in the form of job loss references and foreclosures – both serious and somewhat comedic.

Both topics were central to the context of the neat indie drama “The Art of Getting By,” in which an unmotivated high school student (Freddie Highmore) also comes to terms with his father’s job loss and the loss of the family condo. This is complicated by his father lying about the dire circumstances and pretending to go to work rather than admit the truth to his son. Job loss was also the starting point of “Everything Must Go,” albeit for cause, in which we also learned (what already seemed likely) that Will Ferrell has potential as a more serious actor.

In “Larry Crowne,” Tom Hank’s title character is downsized by a retail giant for the ridiculously convoluted corporate logic of not wanting to limit his chances of advancement. He enrolls in junior college and finds himself in an economics class at the same time as finding himself unable to pay his own mortgage (he had bought out his wife’s share of the house during their divorce, only to end up massively underwater on the loan as values slumped). The lesson he takes away from the class is that a strategic mortgage default is the smart option – a position/choice the film seems to promote as he explains his reasoning onscreen. He also downsizes and sells most of his possessions, as did Will Ferrell’s character in “Everything Must Go.”

In this week’s “Warrior” (a film that is far better than the premise might suggest, largely due to decent acting), the simple fact of being underwater on a mortgage seems rather simplistically presented as the basis for a foreclosure, rather than simply the ability to make payments – and the lead character also suffers a temporary job loss. Apparently, moonlighting as an ultimate fighting competitor made him a worse teacher than Cameron Diaz (“Bad Teacher”). Meanwhile, the foreclosure and eviction crisis is played for moderate laughs in “Fright Night,” in which a suburban vampire is able to bite his way through a Las Vegas development largely because disappearing homeowners are assumed, somewhat ironically, to have been victims of bloodsucking lenders.

And these followed other similar storylines earlier in the year in such films as the excellent “Win, Win” and the overtly-themed “The Company Men.”  

So, other than being reminded that the economy is bad, what else did we learn?  (Feel free to quiz friends and colleagues….)

• It’s not a smart idea to try vacuuming cocaine out of a deep pile rug – unless perhaps you have a HEPA filter (“Horrible Bosses”).

• Good makeup (“Green Lantern”) and real stunts (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) still look better than most CGI.

• Lionsgate seems to have realized what the political parties have, that the Spanish-speaking demographic is worth pursuing, although this week’s “Saving Private Perez” doesn’t suggest they think that audience has good taste in movies.

• Two minutes of Keith Richards is more fun than two hours of Johnny Depp – especially when it includes the line, “Does it look like I found the Fountain of Youth!?” (“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”).

• Selena Gomez (“Monte Carlo”) can maintain a more consistent English accent than Anne Hathaway (“One Day”).

• Kids now know that anybody suggesting that green fuel alternatives aren’t viable is probably just an oil company in disguise (“Cars 2”).

• Forced displacement of populations continues to have adverse effects 70 years later, both to those displaced (“Jimmy Murakami – Non Alien”) and those not (“Sarah’s Key”).  
• You’re more likely to be discovered harboring penguins in your pricey condo because of the noise they make than because of the smell or the flooding of your living space (“Mr. Popper’s Penguins”).

• Life-changing lessons can come from popular sources (“Glee: The 3D Concert Movie”).

• Fifth installments are sometimes best watched in fast-forward mode on DVD (“Fast Five,” “Final Destination 5”).

• Being green or pro-organic is sometimes associated with being a little simple (“Our Idiot Brother”).

• Following a leader with no record of success but also no ability to admit fault is probably not a good thing (“Meek’s Cutoff”).

• Comic books are perhaps best showcased as Shakespearean dramas (Kenneth Branagh’s direction of “Thor”). Shakespearean dramas themselves were the popular entertainment of their time.

• A film within a film, even a film within a good film, can sometimes trump the larger project (“Super 8”).

• Muir Woods is never crowded and always easy to park at (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”).

• And poop jokes are just as funny when perpetrated by females as males (“Bridesmaids”).

But perhaps the second biggest lesson is the reminder that dumbing-down stories is still popular. One of the strongest political or social commentaries of the summer appeared in “Cowboys and Aliens,” although the filmmakers were happy to gloss over it. In that film, alien invaders have come to earth to mine gold, even if that means killing the native population and taking their land. But exactly the same thing has previously occurred, with the white settlers mining gold and killing and displacing the Native Americans. Yet, despite the inclusion of Native Americans in the story, and even a campfire scene during which the aliens’ intent and actions are pondered by both “cowboys” and “Indians,” this blatant and thought-provoking parallel storyline is avoided. Apparently dumbing-down plots doesn’t result in job losses and foreclosures in Hollywood. Which is too bad.

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