Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Summer movie preview 2011

Welcome to the Summer of Movies 2011, an extravaganza of sequels and C-list super-heroes. It's hard to get too pumped about this year's offerings, since they bear such a startling resemblance to 2010, '09, '08, etc.

To wit: There will be a "Harry Potter" movie -- the last one (really), which lends it a bit of urgency. But still, after eight flicks in the past decade, only hardcore Harryites are still besides themselves with anticipation.

There will be a super-hero movie or three. But having already burned through those few supes who are true cultural icons -- to the point that both Superman and Spider-Man are getting rebooted -- ticket-buyers who didn't spend the entirety of their teen years inside a comic book store will scratch their heads trying to figure out just who the heck Green Lantern, Thor and Captain America are, beyond "that guy with the shield."

Sequels to previous summer blockbusters will dutifully arrive, whether live action -- "The Hangover Part II," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" -- or animated -- "Kung Fu Panda 2," "Cars 2."

And maybe, just maybe, a few genuinely audacious, risk-taking films with a heart and a story to tell will fall into our laps in between the explosions and robots from outer space. Top candidates include "The Beaver," "The Tree of Life," "The Help," "Crazy, Stupid, Love" and "Larry Crowne."

Here's our rundown of the summer, with those boasting the most heated hype marked with a *.

*Thor (May 6) -- Chris Hemsworth plays the Norse god of thunder, banished to Earth by his wrathful father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Stripped of (most of) his power, Thor is vulnerable to the plots of his killer kid brother, Loki. Next summer, Thor will join Iron Man and Captain America in the launch of The Avengers, a wannabe mega-franchise.

The Beaver (May 6) -- Yes, we're all supposed to hate Mel Gibson, I know. But this off-kilter dramedy directed by Jodie Foster shows promise. Gibson plays a burnt-out corporate honcho who finds he can only truly express himself using a beaver hand puppet. Wacky, daring ... perhaps wonderful?

Bridesmaids (May 13) -- This comedy about good girls turning bad for a bachelorette party looks suspiciously like a gender-flip of "The Hangover," except for one thing: Kristen Wiig, star of "Saturday Night Live" and perpetual sidekick in the movies, finally gets a lead role.

*Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 20) -- Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley jumped ship from the Disney franchise to make room for more of Johnny Depp slurring his dialogue as Captain Jack Sparrow as he searches for the Fountain of Youth. Penelope Cruz is a new addition as a female swashbuckler and former Sparrow flame, as is Ian McShane as Blackbeard.

Midnight in Paris (May 20) -- After decades stuck in the Big Apple, Woody Allen suddenly can't seem to stop himself from going international. His 42nd feature film stars Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams as a couple who find their lives growing discombobulated during a visit to the City of Love.

Priest (May 20) -- An unlikely action movie star, Brit Paul Bettany plays an even unlikelier badass: A super-soldier who wields a cross and a daggers while hunting blood-suckers in a post-apocalyptic dystopia.

*The Hangover Part II (May 26) -- The surprise comedy hit of 2009, which also managed to be quite clever in its mixture of raunch and adept storytelling, sees the boys taking their act on the road to Bangkok. Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis are all back for another set of misadventures, but despite rumors Bill Clinton will not appear to feel their pain.

Kung Fu Panda 2 (May 26) -- Here's a setup: an evil peacock, Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman) is threatening to eradicate kung fu, right after dopey fuzz-butt Po (Jack Black) became the unlikely Dragon Warrior. It's just an excuse for another round of family-friendly mayhem and gastrointestinal humor.

The Tree of Life (May 27) -- There are few filmmakers who deserve to be called an auteur, but Terrence Malick -- "Badlands," "The Thin Red Line" -- is among them. Brad Pitt stars as a 1950s father whose offspring struggle to make sense of their lives decades down the road (Sean Penn plays one of the adult sons). Malick spent three years editing this film, so let's hope it's worth the wait.

Beginners (June 3) -- Writer/director Mike Mills draws on his own life for this sweet tale about how a relationship changes when a father comes out of the closet to his son at the age of 75. Starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer.

X-Men: First Class (June 3) -- This Cold War-era prequel to the "X-Men" franchise about mutant super-heroes explores the relationship of Professor X (James McAvoy) and Magneto before they became mortal enemies.

*Super 8 (June 10) -- A group of kids are shooting an 8 mm movie in the 1970s heartland when a train derails, nearly killing them and setting off a chain of events that hearkens back to an era of innocence, before summer movies were cynical and exploitative. Director J.J. Abrams has more or less admitted he's channeling early Steven Spielberg, so let's see if he can ride this two-wheeler over the moon.

Green Lantern (June 17) -- Diehard Generation X fans are quivering with delight at the prospect of a big-picture version of a regular schmo (Ryan Reynolds) who receives the gift of a magic ring, and a not-so-voluntary invitation to join an intergalactic force of do-gooders. But seriously, how many people under age 30 have even heard of him?

Mr. Popper's Penguins (June 17) -- Jim Carrey returns to the animal roots of his breakout role, "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," for this adaptation of the beloved children's novel about a workaholic whose perspective is changed by six penguins who come to visit.

Bad Teacher (June 24) -- Hollywood sweetheart Cameron Diaz plays against type as a horrible teacher who's suddenly inspired to impart real lessons to her seventh graders to win the heart of a dreamy new substitute played by Justin Timberlake. With Jason Segal.

*Cars 2 (June 24) -- Could this finally be the film where animation powerhouse Pixar stumbles? Somehow, I doubt it. Race car hotshot Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and tow truck bumpkin Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) take their show on the road to Europe, where international intrigue threatens the World Grand Prix.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (July 1) -- The heroic shape-shifting robots are back for a third go-round with Shia LaBeouf returning as ... oh, heck. As if anyone could actually understand the plots of the first two "Transformers" flicks. Here's a synopsis: Metal-crunching CGI action interrupted by snappy one-liners.

Larry Crowne (July 1) -- Tom Hanks directs, co-wrote and stars in this comedy/drama as a middle-aged downsize-ee who goes back to school and finds himself smitten with his college professor, played by Julia Roberts in full beaming-smile mode.

*Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2 (July 15) -- The fantasy saga of a boy wizard battling the dark lord Voldemort comes to a (hopefully) smashing finale. Never mind that even those who haven't read the books already know how it ends. This is the summer's 800-pound troll ... er, gorilla.

*Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22) -- Early buzz was worrisome, and some people (OK, me) still aren't happy about the casting of Chris Evans, who's an acting lightweight despite his new muscles. But the long-awaited trailer turned doubts into desire to see the saga of a 98-pound wimp transformed into a super-soldier. Set during World War II, expect a more grounded (i.e., no lasers or space ships) super-hero flick.

Friends with Benefits (July 22) -- Justin Timberlake stars ... hey, this guy's everywhere lately! ... anyway, he and Mila Kunis play hipster buds who decide to add sex to the relationship but remain platonic friends outside the bedroom. Which, in the history of the world, has worked exactly never times.

*Cowboys &Aliens (July 29) -- Yes, the title sounds like a bad joke. But director Jon Favreau ("Elf," "Iron Man") knows how to make fun movies. The idea of smashing up genres is popular these days, and pairing James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in a Western oater-meets-sci-fi extravaganza just feels right.

The Smurfs (July 29) -- The indigo animated cuties from the '80s get the "Garfield" treatment, with live action humans -- notably Neil Patrick Harris -- slumming with CG Smurfs.

Crazy, Stupid, Love (July 29) -- Hopes are high for this romantic comedy starring Emma Stone, Julianne Moore, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling as a pair of fledgling couples who tutor each other in the ways of love.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Aug. 5) -- James Franco stars in this prequel to the 1970s flicks with Charlton Heston -- before they "blew it up." No humans in chimp costumes here, but CGI with Andy Serkis, the same actor who played Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

The Change-Up (Aug. 5) -- Another body switcheroo comedy? We thought that genre finally had a stake driven through its hackneyed heart. But Jason Bateman stars as a married guy who envies the playboy lifestyle of pal Ryan Reynolds, and gets to sample it first-hand. And the trailer's actually funny.

The Help (Aug. 12) -- Based on the best-selling (and controversial) novel, this drama examines the relationships between African-American maids in 1960s Mississippi and the well-heeled white families who employed them. What a cast: Emma Stone, Viola Davis, Sissy Spacek, Bryce Dallas Howard, Cicely Tyson. This generation's "Steel Magnolias"?

30 Minutes or Less (Aug. 12) -- Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari play a pair of losers blackmailed into a robbing a bank really, really soon. From the "Zombieland" director.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Aug. 12) -- Mexican director Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") remakes a TV movie that scared him to death as a child. With Katie Holmes as a woman who moves into a mansion with goblin squatters.

Conan the Barbarian (Aug. 19) -- Hey, Arnold's still around. And the original Conan novels by Robert E. Howard actually took the character into his late 60s. So why do a reboot with a no-name actor (Jason Momoa) as the Cimmerian killing machine?

Fright Night (Aug. 19) -- A remake of the 1980s cult classic about a teen battling the new vampire neighbor, played by Colin Farrell in a clever bit of casting.

Our Idiot Brother (Aug. 26) -- Paul Rudd stars as a gentle-hearted hippie doofus forced to move back in with his family after some trouble with the law. Despite the set-up, it's a little more high-minded than your average stoner comedy.

The Debt (Aug. 31) -- This drama (delayed from a 2010 release) examines three Israeli agents struggling to come to terms with their actions 30 years earlier. With Sam Worthington and Helen Mirren.

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