Ah summer…the days are long, picnics are taken, the drive-ins are packed and superheroes, aliens and animated films take over the multiplex. As the saying goes, “You’ve got to make hay while the sun is shining,” and the Hollywood movie studios know this is the prime time to fill their coffers. They know families are on vacation, long weekends need to be filled and those who have the most disposable income – that would be the folks ages 16-24 – have nothing to do. To take advantage of this, they produce big-budget, special-effects-driven films that cost a hefty sum but can pay off handsomely if the stars align. There are five movies being released during this season that have combined budgets of over $1 billion. Yes, only five features and that’s a “B” not an “M.” Of course, if any of them can put up Avengers-type numbers – which has brought in more than $600 million domestically and counting, making it the third most successful film of all time – their investment is justified. If not…well, the unemployment line waits. Just ask the former Disney exec who took the fall for John Carter.
The problem with so many of these films is that I’m not sure if their intent is to offer a well-made piece of escapist entertainment or to bludgeon the audience into submission. The challenge for directors who venture into this arena is to see if they can deliver a worthwhile, humanistic message amid the Sturm und Drang of these sorts of movies. Some can; many can’t be bothered. What follows is a list of 21 films set to be released between now and Labor Day, movies that will strive to entertain you and – who knows? – might even move you.
1. The Amazing Spider-Man
July 3 - The newest trend in Hollywood is the reboot – when a studio takes an established franchise and attempts to put a fresh spin on it by starting over with a new cast and director and a fresh perspective on the characters. While this appears to be a creatively safe and financially sound approach – only commodities with a proven track record are given this treatment – studios are still spending big bucks on these do-overs. Sony Pictures has spent $215 million to reboot Spider-Man with this feature that promises to dig deeper into the web-slinger’s true origin by revealing just why Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) and how the father’s work impacts his son. Taking a page from the comic’s original run, Parker’s first love, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), is now the object of his affection, while his nemesis, the Lizard, makes his first big-screen appearance, now that special effects technology has become sophisticated enough to do him justice [see Spider-Man review in this issue, page 20].
2. Katy Perry: Part of Me
July 5 – Do we really need to know more about today’s reigning pop princess? In 3-D? Truth be told, I’m looking forward to this movie. I was surprised with how well done a similar project – Justin Bieber: Never Say Never – was in regards to showing us another side of the pop phenom. The concert footage here will be fun; there’s no denying Perry has a way of delivering toe-tapping pop ditties. How deeply she allows filmmakers to dig into her past and how honest she is on screen will determine whether this movie is something special or just a well-produced cog in her promotional machine.
July 6 – Oliver Stone helms this violent, edgy tale of two California pot growers – Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the brains behind the outfit, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the brawn who fends off the competition. They run afoul of a powerful Mexican cartel led by the sexy and coldhearted kingpin Elena (Salma Hayek). When the boys refuse to play ball with their friends south of the border, their mutual girlfriend O (Blake Lively) is kidnapped and the pair set out to rescue her while a corrupt federal agent (John Travolta) pursues them as well. While this based-on-a-true story thriller sports a solid cast, which also includes Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro and recent nominee Demian Bichir, hopefully Stone will set the same tone he used for U-Turn and Natural Born Killers to elevate what could be just another genre exercise.
4. Ice Age: Continental Drift
July 13 – I can’t figure out just why this animated series from 20th Century-Fox has been so successful. The characters – Manny the woolly mammoth, Diego the saber-toothed tiger and Sid the…I’m not even sure what that thing is – are nothing special, the animation is simplistic by the standards set by other studios and the stories in the first three entries have been less than engaging. And yet this franchise has taken in nearly $600 million at the U.S. box office alone. This time out, the trio are set adrift on a piece of an iceberg, trying to find land and be reunited with their loved ones. And yes, it’s in 3-D so be ready to shell out that extra $2.50. The good news – a new Simpsons animated short precedes the movie.
5. The Dark Knight Rises
July 20 – Is there a film more highly anticipated than Christopher Nolan’s final chapter in the Dark Knight trilogy? Is there a movie this summer that has higher expectations from fans? There is not. That means the potential is great for this project to disappoint. However, if anyone has proven himself able to live up to audience expectations, it’s Nolan. He has transcended the comic genre with the first two entries of the series to effectively address social and political concerns. This time out, expect the current tumult about the financial inequality that plagues our nation to be in the spotlight. Batman (Christian Bale) comes out of seclusion to battle Bane (Tom Hardy), a social anarchist who has an agenda for Gotham City. How Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) figures into this is anybody’s guess. With a running time of 2:45, Warner Brothers obviously has great confidence in this film. Oh, and on another note, the studio has planned a reboot of the franchise with the first feature set to debut in 2014. Enjoy this cerebral take on Bruce Wayne and his alter ego while you can.
6. Step Up Revolution
July 27 – Without question, this franchise has legs. This is the fourth entry in the low-budget dance series. This time out, a young woman ingratiates herself into a neighborhood dance crew. All is well until they find out that her father, a developer, has plans to raze their homes and build a mall. Let’s see her do a soft-shoe around that!
7. The Watch
July 27 – Four suburban dads (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade) decide to set up a neighborhood watch to help break up the respective ruts they’ve gotten into, so they take to cruising the streets to protect home and hearth. What they end up doing is fighting off an alien horde bent on invasion. This film got some initial press earlier this year when it abandoned its original title – Neighborhood Watch – after the tragic shooting incident in Florida involving George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. From reading the premise alone, sounds like the entire film should have been shelved.
8. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
Aug. 3 – Made for a pittance and reaping three times their cost, the first two films proved to be an unexpected boon for 20th Century-Fox, so it’s a no-brainer that, as long as there are more books in the ’tween series by Jeff Kinney, a film adaptation might as well be an annual affair. This time, Greg (Zachary Gordon) has far too much time on his hands once school’s out, yet all he can do is find trouble to get into. Should be a hit.
9. Total Recall
Aug. 3 – At this spring’s CinemaCon gathering, an annual event in which theater owners come from around the world to get a glimpse of the wares that are headed their way, the film that garnered the biggest positive response was not The Dark Knight Rises nor The Amazing Spider-Man nor was it The Bourne Legacy. It was Total Recall. Yes, it’s a remake of an overrated Schwarzenegger actioner from yesteryear. Director Len Wiseman’s biggest claim to fame is the Underworld franchise. Extended scenes showed star Colin Farrell in rare form as a factory worker who discovers he may be a spy. The film is said to adhere closely to the Philip K. Dick story it’s based on. This has all the earmarks of being this season’s sleeper hit.
10. The Bourne Legacy
Aug. 10 – Who says you can’t keep a good franchise down? After an acrimonious parting of the ways with series star Matt Damon, Universal Pictures was set to continue with this lucrative cycle by suggesting that Jason Bourne was not the only sleeper spy in the employ of the United States. Jeremy Renner takes over the reins as Aaron Cross, yet another highly trained assassin who could kill you with his pinky, while holdovers Joan Allen, David Strathairn and Albert Finney provide some continuity with the three previous entries. This should hold you over until the release of the next Bond film in November.
11. The Campaign
Aug. 10 – Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis star as rival North Carolina politicians who will resort to anything to win a congressional race that they both think will eventually open up a path to the White House. What with widespread dissatisfaction with the political process in the air, this film could benefit from that feeling, but only if there’s some pointed satire blended in with the sort of sight gags that have become Ferrell’s stock-in-trade.
12. Hope Springs
Aug 10 – Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep star in the season’s token studio film aimed at adults. They star as a married couple that saw the spark in their marriage fade long ago. In an effort to salvage their relationship, they consult a therapist (Steve Carell) whose methods don’t sit well with either of them. Director David Frankel struck gold with Streep six years ago with The Devil Wears Prada and all involved are hoping for a hit that rivals that sleeper.
13. The Expendables 2
Aug. 17 – What would summer be without a bunch of geriatric movie stars running around, blowing up stuff real good? That potential void has been filled with this followup to the mega-hit from 2010 that finds Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone) and his band of mercenaries getting in over their heads as they try to stop a malevolent dictator (Is there any other kind?) from shifting the balance of world power with his horde of weapons-grade plutonium. Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger get expanded roles here and, with the addition of Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, well, the gang’s all here. Hopefully, a tongue-in-cheek approach is the letter of the day from director Simon West (Con-Air).
14. The Odd Life of Timothy Green
Aug. 17 – I get the impression that writer/director Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life) may be taking the notion of going green a bit too far in this tale of a childless couple who bury a box containing all of their wishes for a child, only to see a sprout emerge from the plot and grow into a healthy little boy. Obviously, there’s more to this imp than having the greenest of green thumbs and what that might be, I can’t tell you, as Disney is keeping this one under wraps. Hopefully, this proves to be a solid family film, which is in short supply these days.
Aug. 17 – A boy who can speak with the dead, and who is naturally an outsider, attempts to save his town from an ancient curse. Along the way, he must do battle with zombies, ghosts and, worst of all, adults who won’t listen to him, as he navigates the world of the paranormal to make things right. From the studio that produced Coraline, this feature has a unique look and premise that could separate it from the pack.
Aug. 17 – This remake of the 1970s musical focuses on three sisters who form a singing group and take Motown by storm. Of course fame and fortune will test their familial bond. Based on the experiences of Diana Ross and the Supremes, the film features Whitney Houston’s final performance in what was supposed to be her first step towards a comeback.
17. The Apparition
Aug. 24 – Horror films are in short supply on the summer slate, yet the season closes out with two in the final weeks. The first focuses on a college experiment that goes horribly awry. A group of amateur paranormal scientists set out to prove the existence of evil spirits. Needless to say, they get more than enough proof to defend their hypothesis.
18. Hit and Run
Aug. 24 – Perhaps the summer’s biggest oddball, this action film appears to be a dumbed down version of Drive. Dax Shepard stars as a former getaway driver who leaves the witness protection program to help his girlfriend who’s in jeopardy. This is a B-movie premise if there ever was one. But with Kristen Bell, Bradley Cooper and Kristin Chenoweth on board, it could be a pleasant surprise.
19. Premium Rush
Aug. 24 – A bicycle messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) manages to pick up the wrong package. Before you know it, a dirty cop (Michael Shannon) is on his tail. What’s in the envelope is anyone’s guess. While the first response might be to discount this as Hitchcock-light, if the two principals bring their A-game for director David Koepp (Stir of Echoes) this could be an interesting diversion.
Aug. 29 – Bootleggers in Virginia try to avoid rival gangs, G-Men, T-Men and revenuers too in this Depression-era film that sports a heavyweight cast (Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce and Gary Oldman), as well as a director, John Hillcoat, known for his dark visions (The Proposition, The Road). Time will tell if he can jumpstart what seems like a tired premise.
21. The Possession
Aug. 31 – The summer’s second foray into horror focuses on a young girl who buys an antique box at a garage sale, not knowing that it contains a malevolent spirit that promptly possesses her. Talk about “Buyer beware”! Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick star as the girl’s parents who try to free her from this supernatural threat.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at email@example.com.