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Sorting through the summer blockbusters

Thu., Sept. 5, 2013

Amid the din of explosions, a handful of films from the past few months rise above the rest

When you see every major Hollywood spectacle week after week, it starts to wear on your senses. Movies have gotten bigger and louder and more destructive, and you can only see so many explosions and car chases and superhero battles before they start to muddle together in an indistinct blur.

Between May and August, I did see a handful of truly great films – “Before Midnight,” “Frances Ha,” “Blue Jasmine,” “The Spectacular Now” – but they were all made outside of the Hollywood studio system. In terms of the major releases, those epic $100 million-plus productions expected to rake in the big bucks, there were only a couple of highlights, and even then they were mostly underwhelming.

Like every summer, 2013 was heavy on sequels, remakes and reboots, most of which were pale shadows of their original inspiration. I’ve selected a few of the major releases from the summer months that I thought stood above the rest, and although it’s safe to say none of them will end up on my year-end top 10 list, they’re still good examples of solid genre entertainment.

“The Conjuring” – Just a few years ago, it seemed that every horror movie on the market was heavy on gore and sadism. Following the recent successes of “Paranormal Activity,” “Mama” and “The Conjuring,” it looks like horror trends are leaning toward old-school haunted-house scares. “The Conjuring,” in particular, is a well-crafted slice of spookiness, in which every creaky hinge and floorboard carries terrifying implications. Although it borrows liberally from “The Amityville Horror” and “The Exorcist” and loses its edge once we actually see the malevolent spirits, it’s pretty effective, and I like this atmospheric, less-is-more approach to horror.

“Iron Man 3” – I get the feeling that Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t really want to play Tony Stark anymore, but considering this is the highest-grossing film so far this year, I’m sure he’ll keep crawling inside the Iron Man suit until the dollars dry up. Directed by “Lethal Weapon” creator Shane Black, the third “Iron Man” adventure has a couple of nifty tricks up its sleeve (Ben Kingsley, for one) and a darker sensibility than either of its predecessors. It devolves into senseless action in its last half-hour, but the first two-thirds are at least an improvement over “Iron Man 2.”

“Pacific Rim” – Guillermo del Toro’s riff on Japanese monster movies was clearly designed to jumpstart a successful franchise. But “Pacific Rim,” for whatever reason, just didn’t click with American audiences: Most of its revenue came from overseas ticket sales, and it was a smash hit in China. Del Toro, who has brought his vision to everything from “Blade 2” to “Hellboy” to the Spanish-language fantasy “Pan’s Labyrinth,” plays it pretty safe here – the script trots out every cliché imaginable – but the film has a certain old-fashioned charm about it, and it features some of the best action sequences in any movie this summer.

“This Is the End” – Shameless and self-aware, this vulgar Hollywood satire pits a group of celebrities, all playing funhouse mirror versions of themselves, against demons from the bowels of hell. Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill and a number of recognizable faces from the Judd Apatow stable barricade themselves inside James Franco’s house during the end times, and although it’s certainly crass and funny – seeing Michael Cera play himself as a drug-addled womanizer is good for a big laugh – it’s also, in its own cockeyed way, sort of wise about matters of friendship, loyalty and faith. No, seriously.

“The World’s End” – Here’s another solid comedy about a group of old buddies boozing their way through the apocalypse, though this one is superior to “This Is the End.” Capping a loose trilogy that includes “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” director Edgar Wright follows five grown friends reuniting to embark on a fabled pub crawl they failed to complete as teenagers, only to find their idyllic childhood hometown teeming with cyborgs. It sags a bit in the middle when it moves into action movie territory, but “The World’s End” is still the smartest and funniest comedy so far this year.

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