Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Our Sunday best: Sizzling summer cinema

Anne Hathaway as Catwoman costars in the latest Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." Courtesy photo

ANNE HATHAWAY as Catwoman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Legendary Pictures’ action thriller “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. TM and © DC Comics

Summer arrives earlier every year, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned. This year’s summer began back on May 4, with the thunderous arrival of “The Avengers.”

And with a global box-office take of $1.18 billion — as of last weekend — it’s safe to say that no other entry has a prayer of duplicating that success between now and late August (although “The Dark Knight Rises” certainly will try hard).

Perhaps that’s just as well. For the first time in many, many years, the season isn’t entirely dominated by sequels and would-be franchises … although you’ll still find plenty of the former, from “Men in Black III,” the fourth “Ice Age” and second “Expendables” entries, to re-boots of “Spider-Man” and Robert Ludlum’s “Bourne” series. After all, it is vacation time, and our brains also need a break.

But — and for a change — more discriminating viewers also will find a solid slate of smarter fare on the menu: a Sundance sci-fi charmer with Frank Langella; engaging comedies starring Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep; a new Woody Allen comedy, this one set in Italy; gritty crime thrillers from directors Oliver Stone and William Friedkin; and a cheerfully warped fantasy from the folks who brought us “Little Miss Sunshine.”

Just remember: These release dates are tentative and subject to change. Smaller indie films, in particular, may not reach the Sacramento Valley until weeks or months later.

June 1

“Piranha 3DD” — Wow, what a way to start the month. Could the summer movie season get more vulgar? Gore-hounds gleefully recall the, ah, anatomical flotsam gobbled up by one of these sharp-toothed nightmares in this film’s predecessor; given the title, I’m sure stars Christopher Lloyd, David Hasselhoff and Danielle Panabaker are in for similar, um, thrills.

“Snow White and the Huntsman” — This year’s first Snow White saga (“Mirror, Mirror”) shattered the dreams of all concerned, and I’m equally dubious about this second effort. Charlize Theron should be a superbly wicked Queen Ravenna, but the notion of sullen Kristen Stewart turning Snow into an action babe is too ludicrous to consider. Nobody. Will. Care.

June 8

“Bel Ami” — Late 19th century Parisian rogue Robert Pattinson charms his way from poverty to wealth and social standing by seducing some of the city’s most influential women: Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci. If nothing else, we must be impressed by a summer movie bearing a script (by Rachel Bennette) adapted from a novel by Guy de Maupassant (!).

“Lola Versus” — Writer/director Daryl Wein’s light-hearted relationship comedy stars fast-rising Sacramento native Greta Gerwig as a young woman who, dumped by her fiancé mere weeks before their wedding, attempts to survive her approaching 30th birthday as a singleton. Co-star Zoe Lister Jones (TV’s “Whitney”) co-wrote the script.

“Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted” — Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith return once again to voice displaced New York zoo critters Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria, still trying to get back to the Big Apple after the globe-trotting adventures in their first two films. This time, they wind up touring Europe while “disguised” as the stars of a traveling circus. What will those pesky penguins make of this?

“Peace, Love and Misunderstanding” — Director Bruce Beresford (“Tender Mercies,” “Driving Miss Daisy”) helms this dramedy about the culture clash that results when uptight Manhattan lawyer Catherine Keener drags her two teenage children (Elisabeth Olson and Nat Wolff) along for a family vacation at her hippie mother’s (Jane Fonda) upstate farmhouse. Expect plenty of pot jokes and tie-dye shirts.

“Prometheus” — A prequel to “Alien”? Director Ridley Scott isn’t saying, but the set-up sure sounds like it. Deep-space explorers Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender, seeking clues to the origins of mankind on Earth, wind up on a planet that carries a terrible secret that could eradicate humanity without a trace.

June 15

“Rock of Ages” — Director Adam Shankman’s (“Hairspray” and a few memorable episodes of TV’s “Glee”) time-tripping ode to the late 1980s stars Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough as two wild ’n’ crazy kids with Hollywood fame on their minds, who fall in love amid a raucous Los Angeles music and nightlife scene. The impressive supporting cast includes Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones and a fearless Tom Cruise, riffing Bon Jovi as hair band icon Stacee Jaxx.

“That’s My Boy” — What would summer be, without a terrible Adam Sandler comedy? The deserves-no-respect star plays an estranged father who shows up, uninvited, on the eve of his son’s wedding: a young man (Andy Samberg) he hasn’t seen for years. Could this be worse than “Jack and Jill”? No takers here…

June 22

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” — With a title like this, how could it miss? Seth Grahame-Smith adapts his own cheeky 2010 novel, which stars Benjamin Walker as a particularly energetic “Honest Abe” who, upon learning that vampires plan to take over the White House, decides to have a stake in his country’s future.

“Brave” — Pixar’s new animated feature, the first to star a human heroine, features Kelly Macdonald as the voice of Princess Merida, a plucky young woman who defies local custom while matching her archery skills against a particularly dangerous curse. Additional voices are supplied by Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, Julie Walters, Craig Ferguson and Pixar stalwart John Ratzenberger.

“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” — Writer/director Lorene Scafaria insists that this is a romantic comedy, but it sounds like a major downer: With Earth mere weeks away from being destroyed by a rogue asteroid (truly!), abandoned husband Steve Carell embarks on a road trip to reunite with a high school sweetheart … while reluctantly giving a ride to neighbor Keira Knightley.

“To Rome, with Love” — Woody Allen shifts his focus from France to Italy, in this romantic soufflé about the misadventures of Roman natives and American visitors to the historic titular city. The cast features Jesse Eisenberg, Penélope Cruz, Ellen Page, Alec Baldwin, Greta Gerwig, Robert Benigni, Judy Davis and Allen himself. Does Woody have another “Midnight in Paris” up his sleeve? Fingers crossed…

June 29

“Magic Mike” — Speaking of Tatum, he’s likely to do much better in this comedy from director Steven Soderbergh, playing experienced male stripper Mike Martingano, who takes newbie Alex Pettyfer under his wing. Matthew McConaughey and Joe Manganiello have supporting roles — the latter as “Big Dick Richie” — and hottie Olivia Munn is along for what promises to be plenty of naughty fun.

“Take This Waltz” — Michelle Williams stars in this dramedy from indie writer/director Sarah Polley, as a happily married woman whose marriage to cookbook writer Seth Rogen is threatened by her rising interest in the affable artist (Luke Kirby) who lives across the street.

July 3

“The Amazing Spider-Man” — Toby Maguire’s three-film arc as this character concluded just five years ago, and we’re re-booting the franchise already? Whatever … Andrew Garfield takes over as a younger Peter Parker, bitten by the radioactive spider and smitten by Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy. Waiting in the swamp: Rhys Ifans as mad scientist Curt Connors, who turns all scaly as the Lizard.

July 4

“Katy Perry: Part of Me” — The imagination doth run riot over the notion that this concert documentary will be presented in 3D, which means the whipped cream industry must have made a killing during filming. Directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz also promise some “intimate” offstage footage, but we all know better. That said, this extended pop/rock video is bound to be a lot of fun.

July 6

“The Magic of Belle Isle” — Director/co-scripter Rob Reiner helms this tale of a discouraged, wheelchair-bound author (Morgan Freeman) who moves to a small rural town, where he befriends single mom Virginia Madsen and her three children. Will they help him rekindle his passion for writing? Do ducks quack?

“Savages” — Director Oliver Stone goes for the gut again, in this adaptation of Don Winslow’s best-selling 2010 crime novel. Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch star as two independent pot growers who face off against a Mexican drug cartel led by Salma Hayek and Benicio Del Toro, after the baddies kidnap our protagonists’ shared girlfriend (Blake Lively). Enter dirty DEA agent John Travolta, determined to help bring down the cartel.

July 13

“Ice Age: Continental Drift” — Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo and Queen Latifah once again voice prehistoric critters Manny, Diego, Sid and Ellie, with fresh characters supplied by Peter Dinklage and Jennifer Lopez. As global warming casts our heroes adrift on an iceberg, they encounter fresh danger from sea creatures and … pirates?

“Red Lights” — Paranormal investigator/debunker Cillian Murphy sets his sights on spooky Robert De Niro, a supposed psychic whose “powers” definitely seem … unusual. The supporting cast includes Sigourney Weaver, Joely Richardson, Toby Jones and Elizabeth Olsen. The early word: Expect plenty of heart-stopping chills.

“Ted” — “Family Guy” and “American Dad!” creator Seth MacFarlane takes his off-color act to the big screen, with Mark Wahlberg starring as a misfit guy who can’t leave his childhood behind, because the teddy bear he wished to life (voiced by MacFarlane) has become a vulgar, trash-talking nightmare. Can girlfriend Mila Kunis come between them?

July 20

“The Dark Knight Rises” — Director Christopher Nolan concludes his Batman trilogy, moving eight years into the future, with the dark knight (Christian Bale) having “retired” after taking the fall for Two Face’s crimes in the previous film. But when a new terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), blows into Gotham City, Batman — and new companion Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) — have no choice but to suit up and meet the challenge.

July 25

“Ruby Sparks” — “Little Miss Sunshine” co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris re-unite for this romantic fantasy, which concerns a novelist (Paul Dano) who, struggling with writer’s block, throws his hopes and dreams into a female character created on his keyboard. Imagine his surprise when this idealized young woman (Zoe Kazan, also scripted) actually comes to life!

July 27

“Killer Joe” — Director William Friedkin couldn’t escape an NC-17 rating for this “totally twisted, deep-fried Texas redneck, trailer-park murder story,” which stars Matthew McConaughey as a deranged hit man hired by Emile Hirsch to kill his evil mother for her life insurance money. Rumored to be more twisted than David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” … and I believe it.

“Little White Lies” — French filmmaker Guillaume Canet’s smash romantic comedy finally reaches our shores, with Oscar winners Marion Cotillard and Jean Dujardin toplining this saga of close friends who take an annual vacation — despite being forced to leave one of their number in the hospital — and find that grief and secrets further threaten the already compromised group dynamic.

“The Watch” — Suburban dads Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill and Richard Ayoade, looking to spice up their humdrum family routine, become would-be vigilantes by forming a neighborhood watch group … and then find themselves defending Earth from an alien invasion. (Following the controversial real-world incident in Florida, this film shed its original title, “Neighborhood Watch.”)

Aug. 3

“The Bourne Legacy” — No, they’re not trying to replace Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne; hard-charging Jeremy Renner stars as CIA operative Aaron Cross, in a thriller “suggested by” Robert Ludlum’s popular novels. Director Tony Gilroy certainly knows the espionage territory, having previously brought us “Michael Clayton” and “Duplicity.” Can he keep this franchise going?

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days” — This series, on the other hand, shows no signs of slowing. Zachary Gordon returns as eternally put-upon Greg Heffley, the kid who gets no respect in this third film drawn from Jeff Kinney’s delightful books. This time out, Greg and his friends are out of school for the summer … and looking for something to do.

“Total Recall” — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence notwithstanding, the original 1990 adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” was a mess: all style, no substance. Ergo, director Len Wiseman (“Live Free or Die Hard” and two “Underworld” entries) and star Colin Farrell can hardly do worse, in this futuristic saga of a factory worker who suspects that his virtual reality “vacation” may be all too real.

Aug. 10

“The Campaign” — Veteran politician Will Ferrell, angling to represent his small North Carolina congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives, commits a very public gaffe with the election pending, leading two wealthy CEOs to front puppet candidate Zach Galifianakis as a challenger. Supporting players include Dan Aykroyd, John Lithgow and Dylan McDermott.

“Hope Springs” — Thirty years-married Kay and Arnold Soames (Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones), hoping to work on their relationship, attend a weeklong counseling session led by Steve Carell’s Dr. Bernie Feld. Needless to say, they get far more than they bargained for.

Aug. 15

“The Odd Life of Timothy Green” — Novelist-turned-filmmaker Peter Hedges (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “Pieces of April” and “Dan in Real Life”) uncorks another bent comedy with this tale of a childless couple (Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton) who bury a box in their back yard, after filling it with all their wishes for an infant. Cue the arrival of young Timothy (Cameron “CJ” Adams), who’s not at all what he seems.

Aug. 17

“The Expendables 2” — Who’d have thought that aging action heroes could make so much money? Sylvester Stallone’s gang re-unites for another testosterone-fueled battle royale that features even more famous fighters: Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme, in addition to returning anti-heroes Jet Li, Jason Statham, Terry Crewes, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Can the movies survive?

“ParaNorman” — Animator Chris Butler, a veteran of “Corpse Bride” and “Coraline,” turns director and joins co-director Sam Fell (“Flushed Away,” “The Tale of Despereaux”) for this warped tale of a misunderstood boy who — using his ability to speak with the dead — takes on ghosts, zombies and nasty grown-ups in order to save his town from a centuries-old curse.

“Sparkle” — Whitney Houston’s final acting job comes in this period musical, set in the 1960s, as three sisters form a girl group and soon become Motown sensations. Alas, fame has a price that threatens to tear apart their close-knit family ties. Jordin Sparks plays the title role, as Sparkle Williams.

Aug. 24

“Premium Rush” — Veteran Hollywood screenwriter David Koepp (“Jurassic Park,” “Panic Room”) also takes the director’s chair for this thriller, which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a Manhattan bike messenger who picks up an envelope that attracts the attention of dirty cop Michael Shannon. The result? A hell-for-leather chase throughout the entire city.

“Robot and Frank” — Director Jake Schreier’s crowd-pleasing Sundance winner, set in the near future, stars Frank Langella as an elderly former cat burglar who develops a most unusual bond with his new caretaker robot. After all, this new companion would make the perfect partner-in-crime!

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at Comment on this review at


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