By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 3, 2011 at 6:03AM
Something's in the air. The days are getting longer. The weather's getting warmer. Your IQ is dropping by the day. That's right, it's the start of the summer movie season! The critical darlings that get you through the winter moments are a thing of the past, replaced by CGI-packed blockbusters, comedies and the occasional kids' flick, designed principally as a way of tempting you into an air conditioned theater to spend money on ice cream and nachos.
After a couple of lackluster summers -- last year in particular was especially thin on the ground in terms of decent pictures with only "Inception" and "Toy Story 3" to stave off the shit -- this year is stuffed with potential tentpoles, so much so that Jon Favreau, whose "Cowboys & Aliens" is one of the few pictures not based on a well-established property, predicted that it would be a bloodbath. And indeed, every week brings at least one picture that its backers hope will be a megahit.
But how many of them will be any good? Or indeed, how many will be even vaguely tolerable? Are there any "Star Trek"s or "District 9"s on the way, or are we going to be stuck with a season full of movies closer to "Jonah Hex" and "Marmaduke"? Below, we've previewed every wide-opening release of the summer in order of how much we're looking forward to seeing them. Because we care. We've got serious hopes for about a dozen, with another dozen that we're mildly concerned by, and another 12 beyond that, if we end up paying money to see in theaters, will have pulled off a spectacular comeback.
And don't worry, we haven't abandoned our snobby, elitist backgrounds. Later in the week, we're going to run down the alternatives -- the indie flicks, the arthouse pictures and the foreign films -- that will keep the lights on for cineastes over the warm months. So, with no further ado, the first 20 would-be blockbusters of the summer of 2011: the second half of the list will arrive tomorrow (what would a summer movie feature be without a sequel?).
1. “Super 8”
With all the remakes and sequels coming out this summer, thank heavens that J.J. Abrams decided to do something original for his blockbuster. Not only is he making his version of an ‘80s Steven Spielberg film -- Spielberg is also a producer -- but the marketing has slowly built the buzz to the point of delirium. What’s in that train car? How does the Super 8 camera figure into things? Is the movie actually about aliens? And he’s got a hell of a star in Kyle Chandler of “Friday Night Lights” fame, not to mention the promising cast of minors, including "Somewhere" stand-out Elle Fanning. We all know Abrams can handle action, coming off the surprisingly good reboot of “Star Trek” two summers ago, and he’s got the sci-fi handle down producing shows like “Fringe” and the now-defunct “Lost.” It just remains to be seen whether he can inject the Spielberg heart into a film that, from the trailer, looks to be chock-full of action.
When? June 10th
2. “X-Men: First Class”
The X-Men franchise has always had the potential to run forever, and with 20th Century Fox in charge, you know they’ll do their damnedest to make it happen. But between the muddled “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which killed off a number of major cast members, and the redundant, truly terrible “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” much of Bryan Singer’s good work in establishing the series has been undone. But he’s returned to the mutant world as a producer for “X-Men: First Class,” which sees the “Kick-Ass” team of Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman take the superpowered characters back to the beginning, showing the early years of Professor X and Magneto. The series has always been more resonant than many of their superhero contemporaries, and with a 1960s Cold War-era setting and heavyweights James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender topping a terrific cast, this seems so far to have much more substance than its comic-book rivals this summer. Not that it’s shirking on the spectacle; the most recent trailer was chock-a-block with impressive imagery. We’d be lying if we said that the film’s rushed production schedule and large cast weren’t giving us some cause for concern, and we weren’t as keen on “Stardust” or “Kick-Ass” as many were. But from everything we’ve seen so far (bar that stream of horrible posters), it looks like Vaughn might have found his sweet spot.
When? June 3rd
3. “Cowboys & Aliens”
Who would have thought, way back in the mid '90s, that the guy who wrote and starred in “Swingers” would turn out to be one of the most reliable directors of big-scale entertainment around. From “Elf” to the little seen “Zathura” to megahit “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau’s shown himself to have his pulse on the public in a way that few tentpole helmers can match. “Iron Man 2” might have been something of a misfire, but early looks at his follow-up, the long-in-the-works “Cowboys & Aliens,” are far more promising. It might have a title that inspires laughs, but the strong script from “Lost” alumnus Damon Lindelof and “Star Trek” scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, takes the premise deadly seriously, and it’s all the better for it. As ever, Favreau’s been adamant that the actors are more important than the effects, and by pairing Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford with Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano among others in support, he seems to have found a cast that could match the way in which Robert Downey Jr. gave “Iron Man” a resonance beyond just the geek crowd. The trailer and TV spots have all been strong, so we’re fairly optimistic on this one.
When? July 29th
Thanks to a below-the-radar SXSW sneak peek, many of us at The Playlist have already seen Paul Feig's "Bridesmaids," so we can attest to the fact that it is one of the funniest, most deeply felt comedies we've seen in a good long while. The forthcoming "The Hangover Part II" looks like it's setting us up for disappointment, but you can take heart with "Bridesmaids" – it's the wedding-centered comedy that everyone will be talking about. Most of that talk will be centered around Kristin Wiig, who not only stars in the film but also co-wrote the script (with Annie Mumolo), and gives a performance that's worth gushing over. Wiig plays a maid-of-honor who bumbles her obligations at every turn (including a hilarious derailment of the bachelorette party) and has to deal with the messy emotional aftermath that comes with it. While there are some typically Apatowian shortcomings (the movie is absurdly long and structurally wobbly), it's more solid than not – you'll be just as impressed with the level of depth with which it investigates the dynamics of female friendship as you will with some of the more out-there moments (too good to spoil). If asked if you want to see "Bridesmaids," you should reply, "I do."
When? May 13th
5. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2”
It’s easy to take the 'Harry Potter' franchise for granted. We don’t exactly count the days until the release of the films, but we don’t view seeing them as a chore either -- aside from the first two Chris Columbus-helmed installments, the series has managed a fairly remarkable degree of consistency -- quite a feat, considering that they’re knocked out every 18 months or so. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1” might have been more divisive than some of the entries, with some fans calling it the best yet, and others finding it an unsatisfying set up for its sequel, but that sequel, the grand finale to the franchise is almost upon us, and it looks like it should deliver. It’s generally thought that J.K. Rowling wrapped up her saga in a satisfying manner in the books, and David Yates has more than proved he’s up to the task across the last three films. Expect a high body count, plenty of tears, and more bang-for-your-buck than any other movie this summer.
When? July 15th
6. “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”
As impressive as the pairings of McAvoy and Fassbender, or Craig and Ford are, few movies this summer have as top-tier a cast as “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” With Steve Carell’s exit from “The Office” leaving him more beloved than ever, he’s here teamed with Ryan Gosling (in a rare studio outing), the ever-reliable Julianne Moore, and Emma Stone, who gave the best comedy performance in recent memory in last year’s “Easy A,” for an ensemble romantic comedy helmed by “I Love You Philip Morris” team Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. We’ve been fans of the script (by rising star Dan Fogelman) since we read it last year, comparing it to early James L. Brooks in tone, and the trailer was effortlessly charming, and the buzz from early screenings is increasingly deafening. As one of the few adult-aimed alternatives out there, it’s also looking set to make a ton of money.
When? July 29th
7. "Captain America: The First Avenger"
We’ve come to expect a certain type of craft from a Marvel movie. Which is to say that the good news and the bad news is that there’s a ceiling. There likely will be no surprises when “Captain America: The First Avenger” sees release, as it’s meant to lead into next summer’s “The Avengers” and features one of many characters with no built-in arc, only an origin story followed by moments of comic book action. But consider us impressed by the footage released so far, showcasing Joe Johnston’s directorial effort as a slam-bang war movie with superhero theatrics and outlandish bad guy behavior. And we love the cast: Chris Evans has the poise and conviction of an action figure you can take seriously, while support is granted from Tommy Lee Jones and, on the baddies’ side, some most likely typically inspired work from Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones. Expectations are that Johnston will make something as fizzy and enjoyable as his WWII-set actioner “The Rocketeer,” a hope that goes against the nearly two decades of terrible movies he’s directed since. But it is a hope.
When? July 22nd
8. "30 Minutes or Less"
Ruben Fleischer, the man responsible for injecting life (ha!) into the zombie genre with "Zombieland," returns to the scene with this goofy comedy boasting the strong cast of Jessie Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari, Danny McBride and Nick Swardson. The film is reportedly loosely plotted (centering on McBride and Swardson's characters strapping a bomb to Eisenberg and forcing him to rob a bank) and the recently dropped red-band trailer hints at something energetic and flat-out entertaining. Some have noted that Ansari seems to be out of place here, and test audiences have commented that he seems to stumble in the more dramatic moments. We're not really sure who's seeing these pictures for the serious moments, and if anything the "Parks and Recreation" actor will guarantee some legitimately funny moments where "Zombieland" often went for the cute (Eisenberg's rules cropping up in the frame, etc.). Plus, former Power Ranger Johnny Yong Bosch is part of the cast, and how can you go wrong with that?
When: August 12th
9. “Friends With Benefits”
If the romantic non-entity “No Strings Attached” came off like a weather-beaten flower child hooked on botulinum toxin and desperate to prove she’s still “with it”; then “Friends With Benefits” would have you believe that she’s that film’s easy-going sexy, young granddaughter. Given that it shares superficial plot similarities with the aforementioned Natalie Portman/Ashton Kutcher vehicle, but boasts a more age-appropriate director than the wizened Ivan Reitman, and one whose last film was the superlative “Easy A” to boot, it shouldn’t be too difficult a feat to accomplish -- further evidence that Portman's paranoia regarding her younger rival in "Black Swan" wasn't entirely without cause... And to its credit, it does have two leads with an obvious chemistry more likely to fire up the erogenous zones of both genders (Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake); as well as support from other well-known faces who could liven up a reading of the phone book (the always delightful Rashida Jones and Patricia Clarkson spring to mind). Still, its sweary trailer seems like it’s straining a bit hard to be thought of as louche and mildly daring, and along with “Love and Other Drugs,” this micro-trend towards “Hot platonic friends enjoy having sex… consequences ensue” is already a little wearying, given that all of this ground was already covered just fine in Seinfeld’s “The Deal”.
When? July 22nd
10. “Horrible Bosses”
As we’ll discuss below, “The Hangover Part II” is not looking particularly promising at this stage. But fans of its 2009 predecessor shouldn’t be too depressed, as there’s another film on the summer comedy slate that seems more like a worthy successor -- “Horrible Bosses.” Like the Todd Philips film, it’s elevating three reliable comic names best known for their supporting turns -- in this case, Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day -- into leads, and planting them in the middle of a potent comic premise about three friends who dream of murdering the employers who make their lives a living hell. Plus, the film has a breathlessly funny script and a whole flock of A-listers in support, with Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston and Colin Farrell as the bosses, plus Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland and “Modern Family” star Julie Bowen bringing up the rear. It’s mildly concerning that we’re yet to see a trailer, nearly two months from release (it seems as though Warner Bros. are relying on launching the film off the back off “The Hangover” sequel), and director Seth Gordon couldn’t match his documentary classic “The King of Kong” when he entered the fictional world on “Four Christmases,” but there’s more in the positive column than in the negative right now.
When? July 8th
11. “One Day”
Until a few days ago, this would have been a few places higher up the list. The book, by “Starter For Ten” writer David Nicholls, is a beloved bestseller (which tracks a British couple for one day a year, across 20 years), Danish helmer Lone Scherfig, who knocked “An Education” out of the park a few years back, was directing, and the immensely appealing combination of Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess were taking the lead roles. But the film’s trailer landed on Friday, and it was a little disappointing -- a sentimental festival of wigs, with its two stars’ accents all over the place. And Focus recently moved it from a limited roll-out in July to a wide release in August, suggesting that it may not be the critical darling they once hoped. We have heard mostly strong buzz from test screenings, and with the likes of Patricia Clarkson and Rafe Spall in the supporting cast, there’s bound to be some gold somewhere. We haven’t given up on it yet, but it’s no longer looking like the home run it once did.
When? August 19th
12. “Kung Fu Panda: The Kaboom of Doom”
It might not have been the total home run that “How To Train Your Dragon” would be, but the original “Kung Fu Panda” was a step in the right direction for DreamWorks Animation, with more heart and soul than all of their previous pictures put together, plus a gorgeous look and some genuinely thrilling martial arts. The sequel reunites the entire cast, plus newcomers Gary Oldman, Michelle Yeoh and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and sends roly-poly bear Po and his pals on a new quest to stop a weapon that threatens to destroy kung fu. It remains to be seen if it’ll have the same heart as the original, but the action again looks impressive and a script pass by Charlie Kaufman is intriguing. Put up against the summer’s other big animated sequel, Pixar’s “Cars 2,” and we know which one we’d rather borrow a child to take to.
When? May 27th
Marvel’s latest superhero epic is the first summer movie out of the gates, which means that we have the old soothsayer’s advantage known as “having seen it.” And despite having been firmly unconvinced by the marketing materials to date, it turns out that it’s thoroughly decent: we awarded it a solid B- in our review last week. The film has its problems, for sure -- most notably, some structural issues, and its failure to incorporate its supporting cast members properly into the plot. But director Kenneth Branagh gives the film a zippy energy, for the most part, capturing the spirit of Richard Donner’s “Superman” movies far better than Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns,” and its principles more than rise to the challenge of some difficult roles -- in the title role, Chris Hemsworth firmly marks out his place on the A-list, while Tom Hiddleston, as the surprisingly complex villain Loki, makes you actively anticipate his return in “The Avengers.” It might not be one for the ages, but if there are indeed twelve movies more entertaining than “Thor" this summer, it’ll be a good few months.
When? May 6th
14. “Cars 2”
Pixar is truly a remarkable company. They’ve put out 11 films in 16 years, and there’s not a flop among them. Plus, almost every one of them are beloved not just by kids, but by, well, everyone -- they’ve now picked up two Best Picture nominations on the trot for “Up” and “Toy Story 3.” Which is why it’s so dispiriting to see them sequelizing their least well-regarded film, 2006’s “Cars.” The original wasn’t terrible, but it certainly didn’t meet the studio’s high standards -- although, it should be said, kids connected with it in a way that they failed to do with the Proustian delights of “Ratatouille” or the existential dystopias of “Wall-E.” The sequel doesn’t seem to have improved matters too much: they might have Michael Caine voicing British spy car Finn McMissile, but they all seem to have placed the deeply irritating character embodied by Larry the Cable Guy front and center, and the trailers suggest a mix of poop jokes and tired references more befitting a “Shrek” sequel. We do have faith that John Lasseter and co. have something better up their sleeves -- if we didn’t, the film would be much lower down this list. We just hope that hope hasn’t been misplaced.
When? June 24th
15. “Bad Teacher”
This film flew under the radar for a while as no one was sure if the pedigree would translate into comedy. That is, until the first trailer swept the Internet and most of the naysayers got on board. With Cameron Diaz as a foul-mouthed teacher -- akin to Billy Bob Thornton’s character in “Bad Santa” -- hitting on both a preppy Justin Timberlake and a self-effacing (as always) Jason Segel, the film looks hilarious. Lucy Punch plays a rival to Diaz, as they both go after Timberlake, his money and the prize for highest state test scores. Diaz seems to be in top form, and Timberlake's clearly pushing hard to move on to the A-list: this is one of two movies he’s got coming out this summer (see “Friends with Benefits”). We were worried about director Jake Kasdan; his last film, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” was a dud. He was, however, one of the main producers and directors on “Freaks and Geeks,” and behind the terminally underrated "Zero Effect," so maybe he finally has some funny material to work with. And sure, there’s the token car wash scene in the trailer where Diaz lathers up, but we’ll look the other way from that just to see a teacher throwing things at their students. Where were teachers like Diaz when we were in high school?
When? June 24th
16. “Green Lantern”
Look up “troubled production” in the dictionary and you’ll probably find a picture of Ryan Reynolds looking smug in a CGI suit whilst Internet commentators pelt him with their feces. Yes, everything about "Green Lantern" thus far has been the stuff of fanboy night terrors: appearing to be a confused melange of the comically stupid (a trailer peppered with random shots of “man with avian fish for a head” are unlikely to win over skeptical audiences) and the now requisite dour stuff about “responsibility”. Director Martin Campbell’s usually a reliable journeyman who can deliver decent franchise fare ("Casino Royale," "The Mask of Zorro"), but he lacks the authorial voice of a Christopher Nolan and, more importantly, a discernible sense of humour. That said, the ensemble cast is fairly strong (Mark Strong; Tim Robbins), and Reynolds proved to be one of the bright spots in the otherwise dismal "X-Men Origins: Wolverine." By and large, though, "Green Lantern" seems to be awkwardly fumbling from “silly” to “stupid” in a way exemplified by villain Peter Sarsgaard’s hilariously large head. If it fails, expect a loud chorus of “intergalactically bad” we-told-you-sos from the critics.
When? June 17th.
17. “Fright Night”
The original "Fright Night," released in 1985, is an underrated little horror movie, bringing the gap between the more wide-eyed "Steven Spielberg presents…" material of the time with the harder-edged, self-reflexive nature of something like "Return of the Living Dead" (released in the same month – ah, to be 13 then!). The new "Fright Night," directed by all-of-a-sudden hot-shit Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl"), retains the same basic premise of a teenager (here played by Anton Yelchin) who is convinced his new neighbor (Colin Farrell) is a vampire. His mother (Toni Collette) doesn't believe him, so he recruits a flashy Las Vegas magician (David Tennant). From the outset, the film doesn't seem too intriguing, although the cast is sort of unparalleled for this kind of could-be-schlock (the amazing Imogen Poots, too, plays Yelchin's girlfriend, with Christopher Mintz-Plasse playing a classmate) and the script was written by Marti Noxon, who knows a thing or two about vampires and messy adolescent feelings as a longtime writer and show-runner on Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." What doesn't make sense is why, exactly, the film was shot in 3D, but at least it wasn't a post-conversion rush job. The question still lingers, though – will the new film retain the J. Geils Band theme song from the original? If there's any justice in the universe, the answer is yes.
When? August 19th
18. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”
Sometimes, when you hear something bonkers like, "Guillermo del Toro is all about remaking a mostly forgettable 1973 ABC made-for-TV movie about under-the-bed goblins, you just kind of have to go with it. Although, at this point, we should probably be thankful this thing is coming out at all – it was originally developed by Miramax, but with the sale of the studio (and Disney's seeming lack-of-interest in releasing a star-free little monster movie), it languished in limbo and it's initial release date (this past January) came and went without much commentary. FilmDistrict, the upstart that turned the mediocre "Insidious" into a surprise sleeper hit, is now handling distribution duties and the creature feature (starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, and filmed in Australia by comic book artist Troy Nixey) has a sturdy late-August release date. More promising than the creative talent (del Toro co-wrote the script with longtime partner Matthew Robbins) is the fact that the MPAA rated the movie "R" not for blood and guts but for what del Toro describes as "pervasive scariness." When was the last time you heard that? Color us intrigued… and slightly nervous.
When? August 26th
19. “Winnie the Pooh”
The summer movie season is full of noisy spectacle – pirates clanging their swords, transformers smashing into each other, pandas kung-fu fighting – which is why "Winnie the Pooh," a traditionally animated reboot of the beloved franchise (which Disney purchased from the estate of author A. A. Milne for roughly one kajillion dollars), could be just what the doctor ordered. Running a svelte 69 minutes, 'Pooh' sports an unbeatable creative team -- veteran animators like Eric Goldberg, who supervised the amazing "Rhapsody in Blue" segment of "Fantasia 2000," and Andreas Deja, who has animated everyone from Scar in "The Lion King" to Lilo in "Lilo & Stitch," are among the geniuses responsible for the character animation. And the voice talent of Craig Ferguson, John Cleese, and brilliantly, Bud Luckey, the Pixar animator who voiced the clown Chuckles in "Toy Story 3," will lend his monotone to the film as depressed donkey Eeyore. It will be slight, for sure, lacking the gravitas and heart of the best Pixar productions (or the extravagant weirdness of "Rango"), but it should be a gorgeously animated lull, something worth ducking out of the heat (and clangor) of the summer movie season for. And hey, from the way things are looking now, it might be better than "Cars 2."
When? July 15th
20. “Larry Crowne”
Two years ago, Brian Grazer promised us that the scene in "Angels & Demons" where Tom Hanks strips down to his Speedos and swims a bit was going to “add 10 years to his career”. Obviously, it didn't quite have the desired effect on the planet's libido, and the only thing he’s done since then is the mercifully swimwear-free "Toy Story 3." "Larry Crowne," then, is where the Hanks bounce-back begins in earnest. Acting as director for the first time since "That Thing You Do!," Hanks casts himself as the titular sadsack who, after being terminated from an apparently satisfying job at a box factory (seriously), enrolls as a mature student at a local college to improve his public speaking skills. Um… are we having fun yet? Plus points: the trailer is nimble-footed and "Julia Roberts" plays Hanks’ alcoholic professor, and not a muffin-top averse foodie. Minus points: it’s co-written by "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"’s toxic Nia Vardalos, whose career has been in a careening tailspin for over a decade, gaily splattering mud on everyone who’s been tangentially involved in her last mega-bombs, "I Hate Valentine’s Day" and "Driving Aphrodite." Plus, the potential for this to descend into the mawkish, bathetic, “carpe diem” nauseous feel-goodery of "Dead Poets Society" is through the roof.
When? July 1st
Oliver Lyttelton, Cat Scott, Sam Price, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Christopher Bell