According to the calendar, summer’s still a month away.
According to Hollywood, summer began back on May 6, with the release of “Thor.” Or perhaps April 29, with the release of “Fast Five.”
The cultural chasm now separating December’s “serious films” from the longer summer season’s “popcorn flicks” has become every bit as glaring as the red state/blue state divide. Filmgoers seeking characters who speak in words of more than two syllables go increasingly hungry, between May and September. Three of the big-budget films in the following list are drawn from superhero comic books (four, if we include the already-released “Thor”). Eight are sequels in franchises not known for their character depth.
In fairness, the season isn’t solely empty thrills. Movie fans seeking emotional involvement can pin their hopes on the big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help,” or Woody Allen’s new comedy, or Tom Hanks’ reunion with Julia Roberts. Additionally, space doesn’t allow me to mention the scores of potentially intriguing indie dramas and documentaries that will fill arthouse screens: always an excellent means of obtaining balance, at this time of the year.
As for the (mostly) noisy stuff, read on…
“The Hangover Part II”: This concept probably should have remained a crowd-pleasing one-off — let’s not forget the lesson of “Home Alone” — but money rules in Hollywood. Thus, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Stu (Ed Helms) find themselves in Bangkok, once again waking the morning after, this time to discover that Stu’s fiancée’s brother has vanished, leaving a drug-dealing monkey in his absence. Director Todd Phillips reportedly was eager to out-do the first film, and how can we argue with the guy who made the most successful ($467.5 million) R-rated comedy of all time?
“Kung Fu Panda 2″: This one-joke concept, however, seems unlikely to play a second time, although Gary Oldman’s presence as a villainous peacock has potential. The awful avian, dubbed Lord Shen, concocts a weapon that could wholly destroy kung fu, leaving our corpulent hero to save the world again. I’m more intrigued by the opportunity for back-story, when we’ll learn how Po the panda managed to get himself adopted by a goose. It’ll also be fun to meet new characters voiced by martial-arts stars Michelle Yeoh and Jean-Claude Van Damme (remember him?).
“Midnight in Paris”: You’ve heard it before, but this new Woody Allen film genuinely sounds promising. Owen Wilson travels to Paris with fiancée Rachel McAdams, who intends their romantic vacation to be the start of a wonderful life together. But her boyfriend couldn’t be less interested in the whole Parisian thing … that is, until an after-hours stroll lands him in the midst of a mysterious, night-time “other Paris” that bubbles with levels of magic and romance right out of “Brigadoon.” Who could then return to the ordinary world?
“Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides”: Keira Knightley has moved on, but replacement Penélope Cruz is apt to be more interesting anyway; the happier news is the departure of director Gore Verbinski, who turned the second and third entries in this franchise into three-hour endurance tests of self-indulgent bloat. All that matters, really, is the opportunity to once again see Johnny Depp in dreadlocks and eye-liner as Capt. Jack Sparrow, who this time must contend with zombies and mermaids while seeking the Fountain of Youth.
“Bad Teacher”: One can’t help remembering “Bad Santa” when hearing this one’s plot, which concerns a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking slacker junior high school teacher (Cameron Diaz) whose eyebrows lift after the arrival of new substitute teacher Justin Timberlake. Lucy Punch and Jason Segel are on hand to ramp up the tastelessness factor, the idea being to target the same demographic that adores cinematic fare such as “The Hangover” and anything helmed by the Farrelly brothers.
“Cars 2″: Although director John Lasseter definitely let the marketing tail wag the artistic dog, with this sequel to one of Pixar’s weaker entries, we probably shouldn’t dismiss it too quickly. The “World Grand Prix” plot hook makes this an animated riff on popular road-racing comedy classics such as “The Great Race” and “Cannonball Run.” As long as Lasseter steers clear of the pitfalls that made 2008’s big-screen “Speed Racer” such a mess, we may wind up pleasantly surprised.
“Green Lantern”: Ryan Reynolds dons the skintight green uniform and the other-worldly power ring, to play one of DC Comics’ more interesting second-tier superheroes. “Gossip Girl” alum Blake Lively co-stars as romantic interest Carol Ferris, while Peter Sarsgaard pops up as the telekinetic Hector Hammond, one of the many colorful villains from GL’s 70-year-old rogues gallery. Director Martin Campbell helmed Daniel Craig’s debut as the re-booted James Bond in “Casino Royale,” so perhaps this one will surprise us, as well.
“Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer”: Megan McDonald’s popular kid-lit series jumps to the big screen, with newcomer Jordana Beatty playing the imaginative girl whose exploits have kept readers happy for 12 years. Young Beatty is accompanied by Heather Graham (as Aunt Opal) and Jaleel White (Judy’s favorite teacher, Mr. Todd), and the premise couldn’t be simpler: Our third-grade heroine, done with school for the academic year, decides to enjoy the best … summer … ever. Sadly, the entire world ignored last year’s adorable “Ramona and Beezus,” and I fear the same fate will befall this one. Bummer…
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins”: It wasn’t bad enough that Jim Carrey ruined the Grinch; now he has to mangle Richard and Florence Atwater’s charming children’s book? This 1938 classic is a treat for its gently whimsical tone, but this film is only “loosely based” on the book — which is to say, not at all — which gives Carrey and director Mark Waters the freedom to march their CGI penguins however they see fit. The result will be a forced, overbearing bomb.
“Super 8″: Here’s a can’t-miss combination: Writer/director J.J. Abrams (the re-booted “Star Trek” and TV’s “Alias”) and producer Steven Spielberg join forces for a nostalgia-laden period piece, set in 1979 (good grief; am I that old?), which concerns a group of geekish kids who happen to be on hand when a train derails and dumps some cargo being shipped from Nevada’s infamous Area 51. Think back to the fun-laden adventure flicks that Spielberg oversaw earlier in his career, such as “Poltergeist” and “The Goonies,” blended with the intelligence and momentum that Abrams brings to the party.
“X-Men: First Class”: Director Matthew Vaughn rolls back the clock and catches Professor X (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and more of Marvel Comics’ merry mutants during their earlier days, before Professor X founded his school for “gifted” students. This “back in the day” concept worked for “Star Trek,” so why not for the X-Men? Vaughn certainly caught everybody’s attention with “Kick-Ass,” so the prognosis is promising.
“Captain America: The First Avenger”: Chris Evans dons the red, white and blue togs of the shield-slinging World War II hero who begins this origin story as a scrawny weakling, then transforms into a bulked-up super-soldier, thanks to the sort of secret serum beloved by comic book writers. Hugo Weaving co-stars as Cap’s most popular nemesis, the super-Nazi known as the Red Skull. Retro heroics can be a kick, and director Joe Johnston has the right credentials, having helmed the under-appreciated “The Rocketeer” two decades ago.
“Cowboys & Aliens”: Gunslinger Daniel Craig wakes one average day in 1875 Arizona, and discovers a weird shackle on his wrist … and a terrible case of amnesia. Wandering into the nearby town of Absolution proves unwise, since lawman Harrison Ford isn’t at all happy to see our memory-challenged hero. But our two stars don’t have time to squabble, because suddenly spaceships start abducting the townsfolk … and, this being the 19th century, everybody thinks that demons have invaded God’s world. Craig and Ford, in the same movie? How can it miss?
“Crazy, Stupid, Love”: This could be Steve Carell’s return to the serio-comic romantic wonderfulness he delivered with 2007’s “Dan in Real Life.” Carell plays Cal, a suburban guy cast adrift after his wife (Julianne Moore) cheats on him; he winds up bonding with Jacob (Ryan Gosling), a lady-killer determined to re-invent the middle-age schlub into a playboy after his own heart. Trouble is, Jacob’s losing his own edge, thanks to a deepening relationship with a law student (Emma Stone).
“Friends with Benefits”: Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher did this just a few months ago, with “No Strings Attached”; now Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake explore the “sex buddies” dynamic. I can’t imagine why this premise would play a second time the same year, although I’m sure hormone-crazed young guys will wrap lines around the block, in the hopes that Kunis will bare all. (Highly doubtful.)
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2″: This flick had better deliver, because its predecessor — “Harry and Hermione Take a Camping Trip” — was a total snooze. Seriously, I’m not worried; all the good stuff from J.K. Rowling’s final book has been saved for this second half, which has a lot of ground to cover en route to the climactic confrontation between Harry and the evil Lord Voldemort. Actually, the heck with that; I want to see Snape get what’s coming to him.
“Larry Crowne”: Tom Hanks directs and stars as the title character, a decent guy downsized for lack of a college degree. Determined to re-invent himself, Larry enrolls at the local junior college, where his can-do attitude vexes grumpy professor Julia Roberts. Romantic sparks can’t be far away, unless Larry takes the dating advice from his next-door neighbor (Cedric the Entertainer) too seriously.
“The Smurfs”: Worst. Idea. Of. The. Season. Even with Neil Patrick Harris involved, this misguided live action/animation romp can’t possibly be anything but terrible.
“Transformers: Dark of the Moon”: Megan Fox is history; unfortunately, we’re still stuck with blow-it-all-up director Michael Bay. This time out, Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky has to rescue new girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) from Chicago, which has been invaded by the evil giant robot Decepticons. I’m sure Bay will do his best to destroy the Windy City, and I’ve no reason to believe he has learned the wisdom of restraint.
“Winnie the Pooh”: At least two generations of kids have grown up hearing Sterling Holloway’s voice as A.A. Milne’s “bear of little brain,” in the charming 1960s Disney short narrated by the equally memorable voice of Sebastian Cabot. Well, it’s time for yet another re-boot, with Jim Cummings taking over as both Pooh and Tigger, Craig Ferguson as Owl, and John Cleese serving as narrator. Milne’s honey-loving bear exists in a quiet, contemplative realm, and I hope directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall have the good sense to remember that.
“Fright Night”: Colin Farrell takes over the role that Chris Sarandon delivered so well in the 1985 original, as once again a nice teen (Anton Yelchin) and his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) figure out that their new neighbor is an actual, gasp, vampire. What to do? The script comes from Marti Noxon, a fan fave thanks to her many years on TV’s “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.” Better still, the Roddy McDowall role has gone to David Tennant, much admired as a recent Doctor Who. What more could genre geeks ask for?
“The Help”: Casting is key with this big-screen adaptation of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling saga of the class and racial divide in 1960s Mississippi households. Emma Stone seems a good choice as Skeeter, and she’s joined (on the “privileged white side”) by Bryce Dallas Howard (Hilly), Sissy Spacek (Hilly’s mother) and Allison Janney (Skeeter’s mother). They’ll all have to work hard, though, to pull focus from co-stars Viola Davis, Cicely Tyson and Octavia Spencer, playing the maids in these women’s lives.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”: This film sorta-kinda remakes the fourth entry in the original series, 1972’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” with Andy Serkis playing Caesar, a genetically enhanced simian who leads a worldwide rebellion of apes against their human masters. James Franco stars as the distraught scientist responsible for Caesar, and of course we all know where this eventually will lead: right back to Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of the 1968 original. (Got all that?)
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com