I’ve been tasked with preparing a summer movie guide for Popdose. I haven’t done one of these since I was at the Daily Northwestern, cramming dozens of titles into a few column inches. Entertainment Weekly, your local paper, and — for all I know — Orbitz, Stuff on Your Cat, and anyone with a blog will be running one of those all-bases- covered-but-somehow-lacking guides in the coming weeks. But that won’t do here. The trick is to winnow, to cut the chaff to get at the wheat. And as it’s summer, or summer-ish — the season pretty much starts with the May 2 release of Iron Man, though a case could be made for beginning a weekend earlier with the Harold & Kumar sequel, the one Iraq picture audiences may actually see — there’s a lot of fluff to separate out.
Most of these pictures are machine-stamped to be disposable, to make as much money as quick as can be, then be regurgitated as DVDs by Christmas. I find of lot of them to be dispiriting. Summer is mostly about indulging your inner child, and the kid in me just dies at some of the stuff put before us. Worse, there isn’t a single picture on the slate with a giant animal wreaking havoc. (The Incredible Hulk doesn’t count.) I love that kind of movie, but I’ll have to wait to see if Santa brings one.
But scanning the calendar I can find ten to hype about. It’s all about the sizzle, and I’m putting these on the griddle. I’ll say up front that I have no special knowledge of any of these movies, no crystal ball beyond cast lists, a few preliminary trailers, and the odd gleaning or two. They may all stink, and a rose may pop up somewhere else totally unexpected. In the spirit of trying to simplify your viewing, here are two fistfuls of films you must try to squeeze in between May Day and Labor Day. Anything constructive to add, please comment; any complaints, call management. Hey, I’m one person over here, from my garret in Brooklyn, and I tried.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (May 22). “Hoo-boy,” I can hear you snarking, “this guy’s really going out on a limb. Making the tough calls.” But I need this film to work. You need this to work. There are problems: That Jim Morrison-sounding title isn’t rocking my world. And its star, missing in action (or at least a good action film) since the Clinton years, is so old he needs to be backed up by the felonious whippersnapper whose name I can neither pronounce nor spell. Still, the notion that Steven Spielberg is rolling up his sleeves and getting back to basics, scaling back the CGI and employing the same lighting and editing style he used on the first three adventures, excites me. Those, to me, are true-blue summer movies — you remember, the ones with stories, and smarts, and heart to go along with the thrill ride. (And, in this case, Soviet bad guys and a bad gal, played by the all-purpose Cate Blanchett. Yes, Soviet, not Russian — we’re back in the USSR!) What will kids reared on rock-’em, sock-’em robot crapfests make of this? Taking this sort of picture back to its roots is a truly radical notion.
Encounters at the End of the World (June 11). With gas prices high and the economy sagging, I’m pretty much staying put this summer. I’ll let documentarian par excellence Werner Herzog transport me to the wilds of Antarctica, for a no-doubt candid and personal exploration of the continent and the inhabitants of the McMurdo Station research center. Herzog’s Grizzly Man was a highlight of the 2005 summer scene, and I expect Encounters at the End of the World to be equally captivating, at a far lower price than buying a pack of sled dogs and heading there myself.
Get Smart (June 20). Steve Carell killed as Uncle Arthur in the 2005 Bewitched movie (really, skip to the end and see), and there’s no better fit for the role of Maxwell Smart. Tube-to-theater translations have a way of backfiring (start at the beginning of the Bewitched movie and see), but this one seems pretty … smart. Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin, the Rock, Terence Stamp, Bill Murray — who’s not to like here? Will we believe? Approach with caution.
WALL-E (June 27). I’m mixed on Pixar — I may be the only person who wasn’t completely sold on The Incredibles, and Cars had a distinct energy crisis — but I’m still high on the aroma given off by last summer’s Ratatouille, and that’s all the bait I need for this one, about … robots. I’m off mechanical men since Transformers; still, I need to put that prejudice aside and focus, as Pixar’s animators take us into a brave new world reminiscent of Short Circuit (yikes!) and A.I. (eh). Not altogether promising footsteps to follow. I can only hope that this model marks an upgrade.
The Dark Knight (July 18). I was thoroughly creeped out when I saw The Crow, with Brandon Lee. A dead actor playing a living-dead superhero was an impossibly disturbing merger of necrophilia and cinephilia — but I did go. The same sad fate could not have befallen a better young actor than Heath Ledger, in the flashiest role of his career — the Joker — in the much-anticipated sequel to one of the best reboots of a superhero franchise. I’m depressed at the prospect of seeing it, however fine a job Christian Bale, Michael Caine, director Christopher Nolan, etc., have done. But, in memoriam for Ledger, I will go. And to chase away the bitter aftertaste, I’ll check into the neighboring theater at the multiplex to see …
Mamma Mia! (July 18). Even for her, Meryl Streep is on an unprecedented roll these days. Not everything hits, but that hardly matters; there isn’t a film actress her age who is so prominent, and dominant. She has the chops for a stage or movie musical, and I would’ve loved to have seen her in last year’s Sweeney Todd (or, maybe someday, A Little Night Music). But she’s chosen the “ABBA-solutely fabulous” Mamma Mia!, which is giving Cats a run for its money on Broadway and will probably still be performed by someone, somewhere, after the I Am Legend doomsday scenario ravages the planet. It’s unstoppable, and irresistible, like a hurricane you can’t outrun, so join hands with Meryl, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard, and Christine Baranski and give it up for “Dancing Queen” and all the rest.
Brideshead Revisited (July 25). I would like to recommend the X-Files sequel on this date. That title-to-be-named-later film, however (why not just Brand X?), makes it impossible to do so. This quantity, however, is known: classic Evelyn Waugh novel, classic 1981 miniseries, boiled down to two hours for the big screen by the bloke behind Becoming Jane and Kinky Boots. If it’s as dumbed down and cheap-looking as the Jane Austen duds that Masterpiece has been floating, stay out of this house. This Miramax renovation comes complete with Emma Thompson, however, and you need this sort of posh-accents picture at exactly this time in July to improve yourself after the likes of this quarter’s Will Ferrell comedy (Step Brothers), which also opens July 25.
Choke (August 1). There’s no getting around it: Sam Rockwell is a flop indicator. He makes good movies but almost all of them, er, choke at the box office. Furthermore, Choke‘s distributor, Fox Searchlight, has trouble launching indie fare that disturbs the peace; it’s hard to remember anything they’ve handled outside of the two feel-goodish hits Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. (Well, there was last summer’s overlooked family thriller Joshua, with … Sam Rockwell.) But this offbeat character study, from a novel by Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, may earn a Heimlich maneuver, as Rockwell scams restaurant patrons by pretending to choke on the food and winds up with a full plate of trouble.
The Pineapple Express (August 8). Word is that this tale of marijuana mayhem is the comedy to beat this summer. I’m not inhaling, not just yet: the director, David Gordon Green, has one art-house hit (George Washington) and a few art-house-ish flops (the recent Snow Angels, with … Sam Rockwell) on his resumÃ©, and costar James Franco hasn’t been much more than a pretty face in anything. There’s nothing to suggest big yuks from either of them. But if Knocked Up‘s Seth Rogen, playing more uptight than usual, schooled them, we may have something here.
Crossing Over (August 22). A friend saw an early audience-reaction test screening of this immigration epic last fall. Too long, too diffuse, etc. — pretty much the reaction you get to a movie that’s basically unfinished. (I went to a test screening of 2000’s The Perfect Storm that had almost no storm footage.) Its interlocking-story structure admittedly has the ring of the dreaded Crash to it. I’m willing, however, to disregard that first impression. The cast is strong (Harrison Ford, Sean Penn, Ray Liotta, and presumably a few immigrant types chasing the American Dream), and the writer-director is Wayne Kramer, whose hyperbolic Running Scared was one of my 2006 favorites. If anyone can cut through the rhetoric of this issue, it’s him.
So that’s ten. Bonus movie musings follow:
â€¢ Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard add fiber to Iron Man (May 2), though is that sound I hear the bottom of the superhero barrel being scraped?
â€¢ The Wachowskis return from the Matrix debacle with a colorful 300-type green-screen adaptation of Speed Racer (May 9), which the missus says is her favorite cartoon. Car racing is typically awfully dull on the big screen, but the wife says that this one, with its sooper-dooper stunts not beholden to the laws of physics and mechanics, is a must for her. The union will survive …
â€¢ Take the kids to Prince Caspian, the Narnia sequel (May 16). Then leave the kids at Prince Caspian. With no Harry Potter movie this summer, this is your only chance to get some downtime away from the tykes, at a movie no one over — what, age 14? — needs to see. I will attend, however, if there’s a giant animal wreaking havoc on those nice C.S. Lewis youngsters.
â€¢ Girlfriends, there’s a movie of Sex and the City (May 30), and, ooh, honey, you know you want to know what happens to Carrie and Mr. Big and the rest of the gang, with Dreamgirls‘ Jennifer Hudson as the junior miss. Imagine the Botox bills on this one. Will audiences who know the show mostly through edited reruns respond to a full-monty flick? In retaliation for Speed Racer, my metrosexual self will be taking the little woman to this one to find out.
â€¢ You Don’t Mess With the Zohan (June 6) and Tropic Thunder (August 15). The former is an Adam Sandler comedy that looks like a Ben Stiller comedy (2001’s Zoolander). The latter is a Ben Stiller comedy, if Stiller is still capable of bringing the funny; I have my doubts, but costar Robert Downey Jr. in blackface is going to try to tickle our ribs. Oh, and there’s The Love Guru (June 20): Mike Myers resurfaces, but the Indian shtick wasn’t all that funny when Peter Sellers did it 40 years ago, and I don’t see the vintage improving.
â€¢ The Happening and The Incredible Hulk (June 13). My pulse is not racing. The Happening is another “boo” picture from M. Night Shyamalan, with a limp, I-give-up title and an environment-is-raping-us premise, when what I’d like to see is a remake of 1972’s Frogs, where the amphibians led an assault on two-legged polluters. The Incredible Hulk is a reboot of the stalled superhero-ish franchise, with those renowned audience charmers Edward Norton and Tim Roth slugging it out in digital tights, when what I’d like to see is the excellent 2003 Ang Lee picture, Hulk, get a fair shake. It’s one of my favorites in the genre, and if that makes you angry, well, hulk out somewhere else.
â€¢ Hancock (July 2). Will Smith. Charlize Theron. A quirky superhero. A romance. The biggest star in the galaxy, the one who gets the golden July 4 slot every summer, and all I can think about is the laundry I have to do. Lots of socks, mostly. A burgundy shirt. Must separate colors.
â€¢ Hellboy II: The Golden Army and Meet Dave (July 11). An inessential sequel and an Eddie Murphy sci-fi comedy. Where are you going on vacation that week?
As for August… Useless Brendan Fraser pictures (a third Mummy — not that I wasn’t wrapped up in the first two — and a cheesefest 3-D Journey to the Center of the Earth), another Nicolas Cage remake (of the Thai flick Bangkok Dangerous), and some films described as “thrillers.” Plus a Woody Allen picture, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, that’s being sacrificed on Labor Day weekend (August 29). This, despite the casting of Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, and Penelope Cruz, the latter two sharing a rumored lesbian lip lock. Hmm, may want to reconsider Get Smart and the immigrants and bump this up to the top ten as Allen goes Almodovar in Spain.
And, maybe, just for me: Mother of Tears, which something called Mitropoulos Films is releasing (letting escape?) on June 6 at probably three theaters tops. Maybe Mr. Mitropoulos will just hand out bootleg DVDs at the door. That wouldn’t be an unusual distribution strategy for undershowcased horror maestro Dario Argento, here completing the “Three Mothers” trilogy he started in the ’70s with Suspiria and Inferno. (Netflix the DVDs and do the work, people.) These mothers are some badass witches, and the Mother of Tears is the worst of them all, this time plaguing Argento’s indie-it-girl daughter, Asia (who’s been raped and beaten and worse in her dad’s prior films). Writes former Village Voice critic Nathan Lee, “MOT concerns the misadventures of an art restorer who uncorks an occult-kitsch apocalypse — goth zombies, satanic orgies, mass suicide, earthquakes, riots, road rage, infanticide, psychic lesbians, evil monkeys.” You had me at “goth zombies.” Who’s joining me?