Thursday, April 17, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Summer movies: Plenty of style, little substance

James P. Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) are throw together as roommates in "Monsters University." Courtesy photo


We now can officially dub this the silly season.

Summer has long been known for noisy eye-candy, but viewers seeking alternatives always have been granted at least a few somewhat intelligent bread crumbs. This year, however, I’m dismayed to note that the major studios haven’t offered any straight-ahead dramas.

Not one.

Which isn’t to say the multiplex screens have been abandoned entirely to science-fiction, fantasy, superheroes, vulgar comedies and fast-paced action flicks. Indie filmmakers are offering relief, and I fully expect some of their efforts — notably “The Way, Way Back” and “The Kings of Summer” — to shine amid their flashier cousins.

But it is rather sad to see that Universal, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and their corporate ilk have embraced high-concept glitz to the exclusion of everything else. And that’s particularly unfortunate for us here in the Sacramento Valley, because we lack the wealth of arthouse venues that populate bigger cities such as San Francisco.

Indeed, things got worse just a few months ago, when Sacramento’s Crest Theater shuttered two of its three screens. Lovers of alternative fare — or a bit of variety! — now are limited to the two screens at Davis’ Varsity Theater, the three screens at Sacramento’s Tower Theater, and the one remaining screen at the Crest (and God bless ’em all). That seems like a lot, but it isn’t … which is why, in great part, quite a few summer indie films won’t reach us until autumn or winter. If at all.

So, if you’ve been anticipating lower-profile projects such as “The East” (Brit Marling, Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgård), “Shadow Dancer” (Clive Owen, Andrea Riseborough and Gillian Anderson), “I’m So Excited” (director Pedro Almodóvar’s new screwball comedy), “Only God Forgives” (Ryan Gosling reunited with “Drive” director Nicolas Winding Refn), “Don Jon” (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore), “The Bling Ring” (Emma Watson, directed by Sofia Coppola), “Unfinished Song” (Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton), “Tiger Eyes” (Willa Holland as novelist Judy Blume’s young heroine) or literally dozens of others … well … there’s always home video.

Because you can expect the lion’s share of media attention to focus on the following:

May 31

“After Earth” — Be afraid … be very afraid: M. Night Shyamalan has made another movie. You’d think the triple debacles of “Lady in the Water,” “The Happening” and (most particularly) “The Last Airbender” would have been enough to drive this guy out of Hollywood, but no, he’s back. The possible good news: He’s helming somebody else’s script for the first time, so maybe we can hope for something out of this sci-fi saga with Will Smith and son Jaden Smith, as they try to survive a crash-landing on Earth a millennium after humanity fled the planet. Maybe.

“Love Is All You Need” — Danish director Susanne Bier (“After the Wedding,” “In a Better World”) goes for a lighter touch with this romantic charmer, which stars Pierce Brosnan as a widower still angry at the world for the loss of his wife; his son’s wedding throws him into the proximity of the bride’s mother, a Danish woman (Trine Dyrhom) whose husband has just cheated on her. Can true love be far behind?

“Now You See Me” — Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Mélanie Laurent and Jesse Eisenberg head a stellar cast in this twisty saga about a team of illusionists who pull off bank heists during their performances, and reward audiences with the money. Interpol and the FBI: not so amused. Count on director Louis Leterrier to inject the slick pacing he brought to his projects with Luc Besson, notably the first two “Transporter” flicks. Sounds like a lot of fun.

June 7

“The Internship” — Former “Wedding Crashers” Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson reunite in this high-concept yuck-fest, as two downsized watch salesmen who try to revive their careers by gaining internships at Google, where they must compete with younger, smarter, tech-savvy geniuses for a shot at permanent employment. Plenty of potential here, although director Shawn Levy rarely works hard on his dumb comedies.

“Much Ado About Nothing” — Director Joss Whedon calmed his nerves after orchestrating last year’s “The Avengers” by gathering his favorite repertoire players and putting a modern, low-budget spin on Shakespeare’s venerable relationship comedy. (Whedon filmed this movie in his own house.) Whedon’s longtime fans will recognize and delight in the participants: Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, Fran Kranz, Clark Gregg and all sorts of other friends. Certain to be fun.

“The Purge” — Writer/director James DeMonaco uncorks a highly disturbing premise: a society that allows its citizens to run rampant for one night each year, committing any and all crimes without fear of consequences. Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey head the desperate family that merely wishes to survive this 12-hour nightmare … so what will they do, in order to protect themselves?

June 12

“This Is the End” — Class, can we say half-baked? James Franco, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Segal, Michael Cera, Emma Watson and various friends play themselves in this unlikely comedy about celebrities behaving badly as the Earth is about to be destroyed. You couldn’t pay me enough…

June 14

“Before Midnight” — Director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy return for the third (and final?) installment of the chatty, laid-back relationship drama that began with 1995’s “Before Sunrise” and continued a decade later, with “Before Sunset.” Jesse and Celine, now almost 20 years into their relationship, have settled in Greece, a luxurious location for interpersonal angst. Definitely a welcome bit of quieter counter-programming.

“The Kings of Summer” — This Sundance Grand Jury Prize contender might become one of those Little Films That Could. Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias star in director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ coming-of-age saga as three 15-year-olds who run away from home during the summer holiday, to build a house in the woods and live off the land. This has “crowd-pleaser” written all over it.

“Man of Steel” — The current trend toward superhero re-boots continues with this fresh take of the Superman saga, as Henry Cavill dons the familiar red-and-blue uniform … although not right away. This Superman has grown up with a preference for acting behind the scenes, until similarly super-powered baddies from Krypton invade Earth. You probably can’t beat a cast that includes Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Michael Shannon and Diane Lane, and director Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchman”) certainly knows his way around the material.

June 21

“Monsters University” — Ever wonder how Mike Wazowski and Sulley met, and then became partners in kid-oriented fright? This Pixar prequel introduces the beloved characters as they meet for the first time at Scare School. Billy Crystal and John Goodman reprise their starring roles, and the supporting voice talent includes Steve Buscemi, Nathan Fillion, Aubrey Plaza, Helen Mirren, John Krasinski and Frank Oz. How can it miss?

“World War Z” — Max Brooks’ apocalyptic novel has made an uneasy transition to the big screen, with star/producer Brad Pitt’s heavy hand prompting confusion, re-shoots and high-level defections. Certainly Marc Forster (“Finding Neverland,” “The Kite Runner”) seems an odd choice to helm this nasty saga of a globe-trotting United Nations employee (Pitt) who tries to stay one step ahead of a zombie pandemic that threatens to end life as we know it. Doubtful.

June 28

“The Heat” — Director Paul Feig reunites with “Bridesmaids” breakout star Melissa McCarthy for another foul-mouthed, slapstick-laden comedy that pairs his leading lady, a short-tempered Boston cop, with an uptight FBI agent played by Sandra Bullock. Their primary goal: taking down a ruthless drug lord. Their secondary goal: accomplishing this without killing each other first. Plenty of potential, to be sure, but hasn’t “The Hangover 3” already won the race to the bottom of the bad taste barrel?

“Redemption” — Homeless and fleeing an unjust military court-martial, ex-special forces soldier James Statham assumes another man’s identity, and in the process becomes a protector of the downtrodden in London’s criminal underground. Talented screenwriter Steven Knight (“Dirty Pretty Things,” “Eastern Promises”) makes his directorial debut here; I expect him to live up to his own promise.

“White House Down” — When a heavily armed assault team of paramilitary types invades the White House, a wannabe Secret Service agent is the only guy in a position to save the U.S. president. Yes, we saw this in “Olympus Has Fallen,” just a few months ago, but this is the Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx version, with support from James Woods, Richard Jenkins, Jason Clarke and Maggie Gyllenhaal. I’ll say this much: Director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day,” “2012”), never one for subtlety, definitely knows how to blow up stuff.

July 3

“Despicable Me 2” — Beloved former baddie Gru (once again voiced by Steve Carell) is recruited by the Anti-Villain League in order to thwart the gleefully awful plans of Eduardo, a malevolent new super-criminal voiced by Benjamin Bratt (replacing Al Pacino, who departed because of “creative differences”). Gru’s three young wards are back, of course, as are this series’ true breakout stars: the well-intentioned but often useless minions. I’ll be first in line.

“The Lone Ranger” — It’s one thing to mock a Disneyland ride and wind up with a pirate movie franchise; it’s something else again to blow-torch the venerable legend of John Reid, protector of common folk in the untamed American West. The title notwithstanding, Johnny Depp’s re-imagined Tonto is the primary draw here, along with director Gore Verbinski’s signature blend of mayhem and lowest-common-denominator slapstick. The skeptical raised eyebrow you see is mine.

July 5

“The Way, Way Back” — Scripters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Oscar winners for “The Descendants”) step into the director’s chair for this exploration of young love, with Liam James starring as Duncan, a withdrawn teen dragged to a summer beach resort by his mother (Toni Collette) and her jerkwad boyfriend (Steve Carell). Although initially miserable, Duncan’s situation improves after meeting a perky girl (AnnaSophia Robb) and a compassionate mentor (Sam Rockwell). Sundance audiences loved this one, so we’ll see if Faxon and Rash can make lightning strike twice.

July 12

“Fruitvale Station” — This one hits close to home. Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s fact-based drama traces the events that led to 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Johnson) being fatally shot by an Oakland transit cop during the early-morning hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Guaranteed to be hard to watch.

“Grown Ups 2” — No doubt chagrined by the failure of his recent solo projects, Adam Sandler re-teams with Kevin James, Chris Rock and David Spade for this sequel, hoping that the predecessor’s kinder, gentler level of comedy will translate into more viewers. Lenny (Sandler) has just moved his family back to the ol’ home town, to be with his friends and their kids, but finds that new bullies are just as bad as old bullies. I dunno … I fear the world may have tired of Sandler altogether. With ample cause.

“Pacific Rim” — Popular genre director Guillermo del Toro goes massive for this crazed sci-fi update of the old Godzilla concept, which finds Earth under attack by massive kaiju creatures. The only possible solution: Build equally gigantic robots (“Jaegers”) to do battle with the beasts. The catch: Each robot must be handled by two human controllers, and of course we can imagine what’ll happen during the climax. The sense of scale supposedly is enough to induce vertigo. Expect awesomeness.

July 17

“Turbo” — OK, DreamWorks turned “Shrek” into a wildly successful animation franchise, but this one’s premise seems dubious: a garden snail that wants to win the Indy 500? Director/co-writer David Soren earned this project on the basis of his work on “Shark Tale” and a couple of “Madagascar” TV specials, and the voice cast is impressive: Ryan Reynolds, Paul Giamatti, Samuel L. Jackson, Richard Jenkins, Michelle Rodriguez (!), Snoop Dogg (!!) and quite a few others. But a snail? Seriously?

July 19

“The Conjuring” — Horror director James Wan (the original “Saw”) helms this ooky-spooky tale “based on” a case tackled by (ahem) real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga), who accept what they believe will be a routine case involving a family annoyed by a “dark presence” in their Rhode Island farmhouse. Naturally, things turn out to be much more dire. Expect two weeks and then straight to video.

“RED 2” — Nobody expected 2010’s “RED” (for “retired: extremely dangerous”) to be a hit, which just goes to show how little Hollywood knows about its audience. The notion of geezer former spies dragged back into service is can’t-miss, so Bruce Willis and new main squeeze Mary-Louise Parker find themselves assembling the unlikely black-ops squad when a portable nuclear device goes missing. Aside from veterans Helen Mirren and John Malkovich, the cast includes fresh faces Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Byung-hun Lee in what’s certain to be a droll lark.

“R.I.P.D.” — This premise only could have come from a graphic novel. Chicago cop Nick Walker (Ryan Reynolds) gets gunned down by his bad-guy partner. End of story? Not hardly. Walker finds himself “revived” and assigned alongside the undead police officers of the Rest in Peace Department, mentored by Jeff Bridges, and given the opportunity to find the guy who murdered him. With Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker and James Hong along for the ride, this could be darkly funny enough to succeed.

July 26

“The To Do List” — Aubrey Plaza deserves a shot at leading lady status, and this film could be the same sort of career-maker that Emma Stone had with “Easy A.” In a gender-reverse from the usual teen sex comedy, Plaza stars as dweebish valedictorian Brandy Clark, a sexually inexperienced high school senior who compiles a list of virginity-snuffing “stuff to do” before heading off to college. If writer/director Maggie Carey — coming to us from television’s “Jeannie Tate Show” and “Funny or Die Presents” — delivers the right material, Plaza should score.

“The Wolverine” — For some reason, this character can’t catch a cinematic break, despite Hugh Jackman’s engaging work as Marvel Comics’ beloved claw-wielding berserker. Beats the heck out of me; I thought the previous film was fine. This sequel draws its story from a nifty 1982 comic book miniseries by veteran X-Men scribe Chris Claremont, with Wolvie finding love and an old enemy — Will Yun Lee’s Silver Samurai — in Japan. Swords against claws? How can it miss?

July 31

“Smurfs 2” — Really? Must we? The Smurfs return to our world, seeking help from their human friends (Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays) while trying to rescue Smurfette (Katy Perry), who has been kidnapped by the evil Gargamel (Hank Azaria). Why, you ask? Because she knows a magic spell that can turn the sorcerer’s Naughties into genuine Smurfs. Of a nasty sort. OK, so it’s nice to have a family-friendly alternative to summer’s mostly violent fare. But must it be Smurfs?

Aug. 9

“Elysium” — We’ve waited four years to see what writer/director Neill Blomkamp would unleash after the way-cool “District 9,” and this follow-up sounds just as nifty … and just as concerned with class and race issues. Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and “District 9” star Sharlto Copley star in this sci-fi thriller set in the year 2159, when the 1 percent live in an opulent space station, while the rest of Earth’s population tries to survive on the planet’s ruined surface. Can one man’s mission bring equality to these polarized civilizations?

“Planes” — Although doing its best to suggest a link to Pixar’s “Cars” franchise, this animated fantasy comes from DisneyToon Studios, until now known mostly for direct-to-video sequels to big-screen hits (“Brother Bear 2,” “Bambi II,” “Return to Never Land,” etc.). That translates into heavy skepticism. The story concerns Dusty Crophopper, a crop-dusting plane that dreams of competing in a famous aerial race … but is afraid of heights. The voice talent features Dane Cook, John Cleese, Stacy Keach, Anthony Edwards, Teri Hatcher and Val Kilmer. Dubious.

“We’re the Millers” — This topical comedy might be crazy enough to spawn a few real-world copycats. Doofus dope dealer Jason Sudeikis persuades stripper neighbor Jennifer Aniston and homeless teen Emma Roberts to become part of his “fake family,” in order to smuggle a huge shipment of marijuana across the border from Mexico into the States. The revolving door of talent behind and in front of the camera, however, spells Production In Trouble. Likely a total flame-out.

Aug. 16

“Kick-Ass 2” — This inevitable sequel reunites Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s unlikely green-clad “superhero” with Chloë Grace Moretz’s totally fabulous handling of his vicious, purple-haired kid sidekick, Hit Girl. But the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. graphic novel on which this film is based is incredibly mean-spirited, even by the nasty standards in this universe. We can only hope that new director/scripter Jeff Wadlow takes a (somewhat) gentler approach to the inevitable confrontation with the now-enraged Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), seeking revenge for his father’s well-deserved death.

“Paranoia” — Entry-level corporate drone Liam Hemsworth unexpectedly gets a prized corner office, but it comes with a price: He’s told to spy on his boss’ former mentor, in order to gain information worth billions. Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman and Richard Dreyfuss co-star in director Robert Luketic’s adaptation of Joseph Finder’s suspenseful novel of business intrigue and double-cross.

“Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” — Logan Lerman returns as the magic-wielding, half-human son of Poseidon, in the second installment of a planned trilogy adapted from Rick Riordan’s kid-lit series. This time out, Percy and his friends travel to the Sea of Monsters in order to find the mythical Golden Fleece, and thus prevent an ancient evil from arising. Sean Bean returns as Zeus, but Nathan Fillion, Stanley Tucci and Anthony Head take over as various other Olympian gods. The first film was an acceptable B-fantasy; I expect the same of this one.

“2 Guns” — Icelandic action director Baltasar Kormakur re-teams with Mark Wahlberg (from “Contraband”) for this high-concept thriller. Wahlberg joins Denzel Washington in the kill-or-be-killed saga of a DEA agent and an undercover Naval Intelligence officer who’ve been assigned to investigate each other, under the belief that each has been stealing money from the Mob … only to discover that they’ve been set up by the CIA. Cue another buddy thriller that teams two guys who initially don’t think much of each other. And yes, it’s an adaptation of yet another graphic novel, in this case a book by the prolific Steven Grant.

Aug. 23

“The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” — Young fantasy fans still mourning the loss of fresh Harry Potter and/or Bella Swan adventures might take refuge in this big-screen adaptation of the first installment from Cassandra Clare’s six-novel “Mortal Instruments” series. Lily Collins seems a smart choice as protagonist Clary Fray, a seemingly ordinary teenager who learns the truth about her past, and her bloodline, while tracking a demon that has taken her mother from their New York City home.

“The World’s End” — Fasten your seat belts, kids. This lunatic entry is the final installment of what has become known as the British “Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy” from director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. You’ll recall they first delighted us with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”; now the boys are back in a sci-fi comedy saga that finds a group of friends re-uniting for an epic pub crawl, only to find themselves humanity’s sole hope for survival. Guaranteed to be a hoot.

— Derrick Bang wonders if he’ll see daylight this summer. Read more of his film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this feature at www.davisenterprise.com

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