"No matter who wins, we lose." Or so reads the tagline for the August monster melee Alien vs. Predator. It's clever marketing, not just because it reminds us mankind will be caught in the middle of an inter-galactic smackdown this summer. And not just because it echoes last summer's Freddy vs. Jason. Or this summer's Van Helsing-hosted monster mash. Or even this weekend's showdown between the truly mythic, very blonde, and very bronzed titans of Troy.
"No matter who wins, we lose" is poignant because that's exactly the attitude many of us - alright, many movie critics, anyway - drag into the summer movie season, this season of the blockbuster, of sequels and remakes and superhero movies and small fries outrunning large fireballs. This is a season so silly that a few years ago the hero of The Mummy Returns actually managed to outrun the sunrise.
And who wins? The studios, of course, who pull in, on average, 40 percent of their annual box office over the next 90-odd days. But there are signs we've caught on, and they've caught on, and that variety is creeping in. And if you remain vigilant, good things can be found among the dreck.
One great thing, opening in late June at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, is the summer movie that helped start the summer movie season itself a half century ago: the original 1954 Godzilla, and this time without Raymond Burr. It's the Japanese-language cut, with 40 additional minutes - distinctly not the version that first taught Hollywood about that odd symbiosis between teens and summer flicks.
Like a slumbering radioactive beast mutating out of control, your summer movie season has since grown to roughly 100 prominent pictures jammed into three months. So this summer preview is by no means comprehensive. But it is varied, and in the spirit of the coming box office brawl, arranged according to class and contenders, with winners based on a best-bet strategy. With that in mind, remember: when it comes to summer film, the spread is wide.
Characteristics: These are your class acts. Others might have been more expensive to drag into the ring (or more modest in their design). Others might arrive with a promotional push that would make Don King blush. These are the ones that will make your summer interesting.
The Terminal (June 18). Strengths: There's young upstart director Steven Spielberg, arguably at the top of his game. The star is Tom Hanks. The leading lady is Catherine Zeta Jones. These kids have a future. And the story has you anxious to know more: an Eastern European man (Hanks) lands at New York's JFK airport and learns his country was dissolved in a coup while he was in transit. His passport is worthless, and so he takes up residence in the airport. Based on a true story, it's a provocative idea in these days of homeland security. Weaknesses: Maybe too provocative for summer?
Spider-Man 2 (June 30). Strengths: The sequel to the 2002 blockbuster, the fifth highest-grossing movie ever, and a surprisingly poignant superhero film to boot, returns with its original cast, director Sam Raimi, and an even meaner villain: tentacled Doc Ock (Alfred Molina). Spidey's computer-assisted web-slinging isn't so, well, comic book-y looking this time, and the screenwriter isn't too shabby, either: Michael Chabon, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Weaknesses: Elephantine expectations. Thankfully, arachnids are known to handle multiple times their own weight.
Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (July 16). Strengths: The best documentary of the summer, an uncomfortably intimate portrait of musicians on the verge of breakup, middle age, and creative flame-out. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother's Keeper) abandon Behind the Music formulas and PBS talking heads for unprecedented fly-on-the-wall access to a rock band's nasty brawls (and revealing therapy sessions). Incredibly, Metallica own the rights to this film and they still approved it. Weaknesses: Metal heads won't sit through a two-hour-plus documentary in July and the art house crowd won't sit through a doc
umentary about metal heads - or will they?
Open Water (Aug. 6). Strengths: A nausea-inducing premise (loosely based on a true story): a married couple on a weekend diving trip are accidentally abandoned by their cruise director and left floating in the middle of the ocean. Then a few jaws show up. The camera rarely sinks below the surface, only adding to the tensio- wait, something brushed by my leg! Weaknesses: No effects. No Jaws. Shot on digital video, the picture looks cheaper than your average bar mitzvah footage. (But then, so did The Blair Witch Project.)
Collateral (Aug. 6). Strengths: Sounds like the perfect match of gun-metal, tough-guy material, and hungry talent: Picky Michael Mann (Heat) directs prickly Tom Cruise. He plays a contract killer who commandeers a taxi and forces the driver (Jamie Foxx) to chauffeur him on hits. Cruise's last turn as a bad guy (Magnolia) was electric. Foxx, consistently underrated, tends to live up to the quality of his surroundings. Weaknesses: Mann can get fussy (Ali) and Cruise can be self-important, and that can be a match made in Academy Award hell.
WINNER: The Terminal.
THE HUNGRY UPSTARTS.
Characteristics: Unpredictable. Will perform better than promised or worse than expected. Either way, they'll show up to brawl with a cocky strut.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (June 4). Strengths: Could this series finally be growing into its potential? After two literal-minded stabs at adapting the books that got kids reading again (and $1.8 billion in ticket sales), Harry's junior year takes an intriguing gamble: gone is director Christopher Columbus for Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican filmmaker whose sexy Y Tu Mama Tambien and enchanting A Little Princess suggest a way with the yin and yang of darkness and innocence that this series sorely lacked. More fixes: Emma Thompson and Gary Oldman join the cast. Weaknesses: There's an audience out there who never thought the Harry films were broke to begin with.
The Door in the Floor (June 23). Strengths: Everyone likes Jeff Bridges. He returns as a children's book author mourning (with wife Kim Basinger) the death of a son. Adapted from John Irving's last great book, A Widow for One Year. Distributor Focus Features (Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine) is on a roll. Adults deserve summer movies, too. Weaknesses: Cider House Rules, the previous Irving adaptation, was lauded - as an aberration. (On the other hand, Irving got to approve the script.)
Before Sunset (July 16). Strengths: Director Richard Linklater, coming off School of Rock, returns to his beautiful (and way undervalued) 1995 romance Before Sunrise. As promised in the first film, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunite nine years later in Paris and spend their day catching up. Linklater (Waking Life) is one of a few filmmakers who can fill a movie with conversation and still make you swoon. Weaknesses: A talky art house sequel? Nine years after the original? For a movie that never really found its audience in the first place?
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (July 9) Strengths: Easy. Will Ferrell. Making fun of smarmy, clueless local TV newscasters. Specifically, '70s newscasters. But then, some subjects are timeless. Weaknesses: Brown rayon suits do not a comedy make, and that plot (female anchor Christina Applegate threatens the male-dominated newsroom) sounds thinner than your average mock news report on The Daily Show.
The Village (July 30). Strengths: M. Night Shyamalan (Signs, Sixth Sense) turns out another super-secret, intriguing plot: this time Joaquin Phoenix leads 19th century Pennsylvania villagers into the mysterious woods that they've always been told contain mystical beasts. Weaknesses: By now, we're trying to figure out Shyamalan's latest twist before we even step into the theater. Is that great cast (Adrian Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver) a kind of insurance against audience apathy?
THE STRONG AND SILENT.
Characteristics: Compared to summer's heavy hitters, they're scrawny. But they have brains to spare, and can strike from out of nowhere. In short, they may not look like much, but they're worth driving to Ann Arbor (or Bowling Green, possibly) to check out.
Super-Size Me (June). Strengths: Scarier than anything you'll see all summer, and with good reason: Just when you thought it was safe to order that fish sandwich, documentarian Morgan Spurlock spent a month eating only McDonald's, and the result? Obesity, liver damage, addiction, low sex drive. His shamelessly entertaining film finds the unlikely common ground where the art house and Fear Factor collide. Weaknesses: Some say it's just shameless, that Spurlock plays fast and loose with his facts, his nutrition, and his conclusion: Fast food is evil.
Maria Full of Grace (August). Strengths: Another stomach turner, but for different reasons. Director Joshua Marston's brilliant Sundance hit (and one of the best films of the year) tells the story of a Colombian teenager who smuggles heroin into New York. She swallows it. Hitchcock would appreciated the tension. Weaknesses: Unrelentingly grim with only a glint of hope, and at the very end, too.
We Don't Live Here Anymore (August). Strengths: Two of our finest new actors, Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts, sparkle in a darkly funny adult drama about cheating spouses. Adapted from the late Andre Dubus, who wrote In the Bedroom. Weaknesses: Self-absorbed jerks for protagonists - the only sympathy will have to come from within you.
WINNER: Super-Size Me.
THE FRESH MEAT.
Characteristics: They talk trash, they get in a few jabs. But they're are hanging out at your video store before you know it.
Soul Plane (May 28). Strengths: Love that silly trailer. Love that one-joke premise: a settlement with an airline leads to the first black owned-and-operated airline. And yes, it's called NWA. Weaknesses: Snoop Dogg plays captain on the maiden voyage. That I can handle. But Tom Arnold as the White Guy? We're dreading the strip search.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (June 18). Strengths: Sounds like a terrific sketch: Vince Vaughn leads a Meatballs-like squad of neighborhood losers into a big dodgeball tournament against Ben Stiller's corporate-sponsored dodgeball dream team. Weaknesses: Our long national nightmare is over: finally, a new Ben Stiller movie.
White Chicks (June 23). Strengths: Their targets are right: Marlon and Shawn Wayans play FBI agents who go undercover as hotel queens the Wilton sisters - who have nothing at all in common with spoiled hotel heiresses Paris and Nicky Hilton. Weaknesses: Have you see the trailer? Can mankind see past how profoundly wrong the Wayans look as White Chicks?
Alien vs. Predator (Aug. 13). Strengths: New Line pulled it off with Freddy and Jason, so why can't Fox wrangle the same from their intergalactic monstrosities? The story, inspired by the comic book series, finds monsters and man in a pyramid beneath the Antarctic. Director Paul W. S. Anderson had fun with Resident Evil. Weaknesses: No Sigourney. No Ah-nold. But there is a distinctly non-epic feel about this.
Characteristics: Nimble and light, they float like a butterflies, but yet rarely sting like bees.
Shrek 2 (Wednesday). Strengths: Mike Myers and Co. lend their voices again. But any animated sequel inspired enough to have Larry King do the voice of an ugly stepsister is definitely not on autopilot. Antonio Banderas is Puss-In-Boots, Rupert Everett is Prince Charming, and the Hollywood satire is pointed and sharp. What's to hate? Weaknesses: DreamWorks digital animation still doesn't have the warmth of a Pixar film.
De-Lovely (June 25). Strengths: Maybe the tastiest idea of the season: Kevin Kline sings and dances through a musical biography of composer Cole Porter, with numbers performed by Elvis Costello and wife Diana Krall. And Porter's homosexuality (despite his having a wife, played by Ashley Judd) isn't ignored like it was in Cary Grant's 1946 Night and Day. Weaknesses: If it's so de-lovely, why isn't it de-coming out at de-Christmas - like de-Chicago?
Catwoman (July 23). Strengths: The return of arguably the coolest female superhero ever, with the right body in Halle Berry to fill a leather catsuit. Weaknesses: But have you seen that catsuit? It's more Cats than Catwoman; and the plot not only breaks with Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle, it splits away from DC Comics to give us - oh, dear - an evil cosmetics company run by Sharon Stone?
WINNER: Shrek 2.
THE SPARRING PARTNERS.
Characteristics: Your kids have no problem watching them go through the motions. (But you'll want to bring a book.)
Garfield (June 11). Strengths: The voice of Bill Murray as the world's most famous suction-cupped car ornament (I mean, world's laziest cat). Weaknesses: Everything else, or least that's the impression you get from the forced high spirits of the trailer. Once an edgy answer to Peanuts (believe it or not), this Garfield makes Family Circus look like Fight Club: The Suburban Years.
Thunderbirds (July 30). Strengths: Less of a live-action stab at the '60s British cult show, about top secret astronauts who travel the world delivering last-minute rescues, than an attempt at landing Spy Kids aficionados. Always reliable Bill Paxton stars. Weaknesses: One very large one. What was charming (and odd) about the series is that it was entirely acted by puppets. Get rid of the puppets, and you've got an uphill job of convincing me, mister. (Sorry, I'm very opinionated when it comes to puppets.)
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (Aug. 11). Strengths: Lovely Anne Hathaway returns (as does Julie Andrews and director Gary Marshall). The plot: the new princess of Genovia grapples with arranged marriage. This is the original that set off the current princess-to-be cycle. Weaknesses: It might have been first, but it's not even the first princess movie this summer: Hilary Duff in A Cinderella Story (July 16).
WINNER: Princess Diaries.
THE BARE-KNUCKLE BOYS.
Characteristics: These guys lack subtlety. They go straight for the noggin every time. But then sometimes you just want to see a knockout. (Or a fireball or two.)
The Day After Tomorrow (May 28). Strengths: The Mother of All Disasters gets its close-up in what's intended to be the Mother of All Disaster Movies. Climate change (don't call it global warming, Fox insists) leads to a new Ice Age and Independence Day director Roland Emmerich's latest excuse for leveling Manhattan. Dreams of Irwin Allen dance in our heads. Weakness: Once New York has frozen over and landmarks have toppled, Emmerich is not known for his third acts. Remember Godzilla?
The Chronicles of Riddick (June 11). Strengths: Remember Vin Diesel's escaped convict in the 2000 sci-fi hit Pitch Black? Sort of, right? Well, it's being expanded into an art direction-saturated space trilogy that promises to do John Carter of Mars proud. No matter what, it'll look terrific. Weaknesses: A transparent attempt at creating a sequel-friendly franchise. Besides: The Chronicles of Riddi-who?
I, Robot (July 16). Strengths: Isaac Asimov's series about a future society that relies on robot servants finds the right visual eye in director Alex Proyas (Dark City). Weaknesses: But when Asimov's robots turn on their masters, does it have the right detective in Will Smith? And can Proyas condense a beloved egghead epic and still do justice within a feature-length flick?
King Arthur (July 7). Strengths: A bold attempt by producer Jerry Bruckheimer to give the Round Table and Guinevere (Pirates of the Caribbean's Keira Knightley) a historical context (which never actually existed). Weaknesses: Arthurian legend without digital magic and monsters? Could turn out to be more like Bruckheimer's First Knight than his next Pirates. Also: Disney pulled it from its prestigious December slot, presumably to give the fireballs more context.
The Bourne Supremacy (July 23). Strengths: Matt Damon, who carries a shyness in his eyes your average action hero could never muster. As the identity-challenged Jason Bourne, everyone's favorite amnesiac (The Bourne Identity DVD was the No. 1 rental of 2003, oddly enough), he returns with a chase picture (about the assassination of a Chinese premier) that promises to remain as intelligent as the original. Weaknesses: Director Doug Liman, who kept that 2002 hit grounded in some semblance of reality, didn't return. (Bloody Sunday's Paul Greengrass, another art house regular, stepped in). High potential to induce unintended amnesia in audiences.
THE SHADOW BOXERS.
Characteristics: Modeled on the classic (and not-so classic) contenders of old, they "borrow" ideas and make them their own. They are not the safest bets.
Around the World in 80 Days (June 18). Strengths: Inspired casting led to Brit actor Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People) as Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg, and Jackie Chan as Passepartout, in this remake of the 1956 Oscar-winning Best Picture. Weaknesses: But is that the extent of the inspiration? Paramount dumped this indie production in Disney's lap, despite cameos from everyone from Owen Wilson to the large governor of California.
The Stepford Wives (June 11). Strengths: Nicole Kidman hasn't made a dark comedy since her great turn in To Die For (1995). Weaknesses: Bet you didn't know that 1975 thriller about robotic housewives was comedy material? This "re-imagining" from Frank Oz had the summer's most turbulent production (or least-skilled publicists). Let's just say co-star Bette Midler reportedly didn't make any new friends.
The Manchurian Candidate (July 30). Strengths: A first-rate director in Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). An ideal cast in Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber. You want relevance? Its plot updates the 1962's classic Cold War espionage to a 1991 Gulf War brainwashing, and includes a summer political convention. Weaknesses: Demme's recent remake of Charade (The Truth About Charlie) is not a good sign. Plus, John Frankenheimer's original still feels entirely relevant.
Shall We Dance? (Aug. 6). Strengths: A remake of the 1996 Japanese art house favorite, with a good cast: Richard Gere plays a lonely Chicago businessman who rediscovers passion when he meets a dance instructor (Jennifer Lopez) - and they dance. (But sorry, no sex.) Director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity) has the right touch with light material. Weaknesses: Gere's infamous narcissism meets professional narcissist Lopez - there's a combo more combustible than bare feet and beach sand in July.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com or 419-724-6117.