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Published: Sunday, 5/14/2006

It s a bird! It s a plane! It s Summer Movies

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Superman Returns (June 30). Superman Returns (June 30).
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Summer s here, and I m lazy.

Meet my focus group of one:

Joel.

Joel is 18. He goes to St. John s Jesuit High School in Toledo. Joel has been shadowing me for two weeks because Joel is exploring career options before he heads off to college in the Fall. The other day I had this conversation with Joel. Me: You know that TV show Taxi? Joel: I ve heard of it. Me: You ve never seen it? Joel: It s sort of before my time.

My false teeth nearly fell out.

Next time you see Joel, thank him. Joel is the reason you get the movies you get every summer. He s an 18-year-old male. He is THE Hollywood demographic, period; he is precisely who movie studios have in mind because he is the demographic who goes to movies most often.

He IS the summer movie season. Joel himself thinks this is sad; I explain studios give us sequels, remakes, and adaptations of old TV shows every summer because brand names are recognizable, and while it means big ticket sales (40 percent of the annual box office is taken between Memorial and Labor Day), and makes financial sense (when $75 million is an average budget, you want to reduce the risk), it also means a general lack of original ideas. And Joel responds, Sad.

He thinks You, Me and Dupree (July 14) looks interesting because it has Owen Wilson and he liked Wedding Crashers last summer. Joel is too old for the adaptation of the kid s classic How to Eat Fried Worms (Aug. 25), the computer-animated Barnyard (July 25), Ant Bully (Aug. 4), and Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties (June 23). He doesn t mention The Reaping (Aug. 11) a horror movie with Hilary Swank, or the remake of The Omen (June 6). But they are meant for him.

Lady in the Water (July 21). Lady in the Water (July 21).
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Same with Adam Sandler s Click (June 23), but not the romance Lake House (June 16) with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock. He seems somewhat obligated to catch The Da Vinci Code, which opens Friday. Same with Mission: Impossible III, but he says it with a shrug, the way death-row inmates refer to the inevitable. When I mention Poseidon, which opened Friday, he offers a bit of sweet naivete:

How do they know that movie to begin with? Do you think that the filmmakers were born yet?

Feel old?

To Joel (established in 1988), The Omen and The Poseidon Adventure and even the original Superman 70s blockbusters, all are as antique as 50s movies were to someone (say, myself) born in the early 70s. So let s have some sympathy for the kid summer looks fresh to him.

But that doesn t mean you should stay home. What follows are my picks for the 25 most intriguing movies of summer 2006. I paid no attention to demographics, marketing, or Joel. A number of the movies I have already seen. The rest are based on a highly scientific logarithm that uses insider dish, track records, a dose of rumor, and a lot of shameless wild speculation.

Release dates are tentative.

A Scanner Darkly (Aug. 4). A Scanner Darkly (Aug. 4).
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25. The Da Vinci Code (Friday). Strengths: The intrigue. The controversy. Source material that reads like a fun (if laughable) movie script to begin with. You ve got to see it just to be a functioning member of society. Ron Howard, the often-cracked-about-director, is getting incrementally bolder as he gets older. Weaknesses: An adaptation of a page-turner in which all the pages have been turned. Even if you haven t read the book you probably know the story, how it ends, what its secrets are. (Howard s even admitted as much.) And everyone hates Tom Hanks hair he looks like a hot jazz flutist.

24. Little Miss Sunshine (July 28) Strengths: A rare character-driven summer comedy with a smart cast: Steve Carell as a manic-depressive; Toni Collette as the mom of a daughter headed to a kiddie beauty pageant; Alan Arkin as a corpse (it s a long story). Recalls melancholy old Hal Ashby films like Harold and Maude. Sundance went bonkers for it; Fox bought the film for $10.5 million (the most ever for a single picture at the festival). Weaknesses: Did I mention the air is thin at Sundance? Recalls Ashby, yes, but only if you squint. Weak screenplay. Could use a handful of funnier jokes, and the Sundance laughter a bit too hard. Know what I mean?

23. Strangers With Candy (June 28). Strengths: Finally, an adaptation of a good TV show, Comedy Central s cult hit (canceled in 2001) about a 46-year-old crack addict who goes back to high school. The clever satire of Lifetime and ABC Afterschool Specials hasn t gotten old. The cast features two of the funniest people alive: Amy Sedaris (as the ex-junkie) and Stephen Colbert (as a gay teacher). Weaknesses: Very little here is as funny as the (cringingly) politically incorrect half-hour series. Held up a year and a half because of a distributor glitch maybe someone is wishing it ll get funnier with age.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man s Chest (July 7). Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man s Chest (July 7).
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22. Snakes on a Plane (Aug. 18). Strengths: Samuel L. Jackson pitches America, and America likes. A great so-dumb-it s-clever title. Mobster releases snakes on a plane to kill a witness. The Rock fighting snakes on a plane is a snorer. Sam and snakes this man knows from camp. Weaknesses: At some point we re going to realize this is about snakes on a plane. If this truly is in the exploitation-flick tradition, the promotion may prove far more entertaining than the film. If you ve seen the trailer, you might have already seen the movie and I smell Anacondas.

21. Word Play (June 23). Strengths: This summer s hit fishbowl documentary. Like the filmmakers of Spellbound (spelling bees) and Mad Hot Ballroom (kiddie tango), Patrick Creadon peers in on a micro-group. In this case, crossword puzzle aficionados specifically their leader, New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz. Bounces along happily. Features Bill Clinton doing crossword puzzles ridiculously fast. Sundance loved it. Weaknesses: Too narrow to become a breakout hit? A bit overly cutesy, and not particularly insightful.

20. The Devil Wears Prada (June 23). Strengths: Classic counter-programming. While boys dig the guy with the S on his chest, gals feast on this adaptation of the chick-lit hit (and beach-read staple). Anne Hathaway comes into her own as an underling terrorized by The Boss from Hell (played with a vicious hiss by Meryl Streep). Said to be based on Vogue editor Anna Wintour. (Author Laura Weisberger was once her underling.) Directed by Sex and the City s David Frankel, who knows low comedy from high couture. Weaknesses: Without transcendent performances, it ll unravel quicker than knockoff Armani.

Little Miss Sunshine (July 28). Little Miss Sunshine (July 28).
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19. Pulse (July 14). Strengths: Since you never saw the great Japanese original (because it was barely released here), this apocalyptic ghost story will have to do and the trailer suggests a note-for-note, shot-for-shot remake about friends plagued by a malevolent computer virus. Stars the excellent Kristen Bell of TV s Veronica Mars. Moved out of the doldrums of March to the hard-core summer playing field always a positive sign. Weaknesses: Hollywood s track record with remakes of subtle, silent Japanese horror is a crap shoot.

18. Monster House (July 21). Strengths: When Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg team for a summer film (Back to the Future, Roger Rabbit, etc.), the results often remind you of how a summer movie can sing. This is an animated movie about, yes, a monster house and the kids who discover it. Nice trailer. Last time Zemeckis and Spielberg tinkered with animation, it was The Polar Express. Weaknesses: Polar Express strained hard to flesh out a story, and a movie about children befriending architecture is not quite a magical train. The stylized Incredibles aside, animators haven t licked the problem of digitally rendered people Polar Express (to me, anyway) was a heartwarming tale about lurching zombies, and this uses the same animation style.

17. Idlewild (Aug. 25). Strengths: A fantastic hip-hop act (OutKast) steps out on a limb the way musical acts rarely do anymore, with an ambitious musical. This one is set during Prohibition. The cast is a class act: Ben Vereen, Cicely Tyson, Patti LaBelle. The choreography is from three-time Tony winner Hinton The Tap Dance Kid Battle; judging from the trailer, the dancing won t disappoint. Weaknesses: Bumped around the schedule for a year some say to dovetail with the release of the duo s latest album. Some say for ... different reasons. Either way, a late August release is never a big sign of confidence.

16. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Aug. 4). Strengths: Will Farell, front and center, reunited with Anchorman director Adam McKay. They sold it to Columbia with a single line: Will as a NASCAR superstar. Great comedy has been built on less, and this has dream support: Junebug s Amy Adams, John C. Reilly, Sacha Baron Cohen (a.k.a. Ali G) as Will s French rival. Am I the only one who loved Anchorman? Weaknesses: I may be. Give Farell enough rope to hang himself and he does, every 10 minutes. Is it a satire of NASCAR culture, or too worried about alienating pork-rind aficionados? You may be a redneck if... you laugh. You may have to be.

15. An Inconvenient Truth (June). Strengths: OK, this will be tough. There s this guy, Al Gore. Used to be in government or something. He s been touring with a lecture about global warming and the urgent need to do something fast. This film is a documentary of that lecture. An Al Gore lecture movie. It s funny! Really! And scary! Besides, who knew you d see a French documentary about penguins, either? Weaknesses: Visually gorgeous, an alarming argument and a tougher sell than Joseph Lieberman Sings Black Oak Arkansas.

14. World Trade Center (Aug. 11). Strengths: What it has going for it is what might work against it: Oliver Stone, once again in the director s chair addressing a harrowing moment in American history. The story, however, is smartly scaled down to two New York City Port Authority cops (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) trapped beneath the rubble. Stone eschews his infamous conspiracy theory-hot button reputation for courage in the face of devastation. Weaknesses: There s no room for mistakes. The corny trailers push triumph-in-the-face-adversity uncomfortably hard. Besides, would you want to be the first 9/11 movie to follow the somber, masterful restraint of United 93?

13. Nacho Libre (June 16). Strengths: Fat people in Spandex are very funny. No exceptions. When the belly spilling over the top of those tights belongs to Jack Black, the potential is even, um, fatter. Black plays a Mexican luchador (a wrestler) in true broad comedy tradition, he s out to rescue an orphanage. It looks silly? Well, yeah. The director is Jared Hess, making his first film since Napoleon Dynamite. The writer is Mike White, one of the best comedy writers working (he made School of Rock with Black). Weaknesses: Is there anything else to it but Black doing an accent in Spandex? Unless this hits, Hess remains a one-hit deadpan wonder with very limited range.

12. My Super Ex-Girlfriend (July 21). Strengths: Charming premise written by a funny guy, The Simpsons Don Payne. Could be an ideal summer night at the movies: Uma Thurman (in Kill Bill-light mode) plays a superhero dumped by her mere-mortal boyfriend. She takes action. Ivan Reitman s first return to directing in five years. Weaknesses: Reitman, who long ago directed Ghostbusters and Stripes, is more recently responsible for Father s Day and the Harrison Ford flick Six Days and Seven Nights. Could be as one-note and forgettable as it sounds, or as drowsy as Luke Wilson, who plays Uma s ex.

11. A Prairie Home Companion (June 9). Strengths: Directed by Robert Altman, arguably the most important American director alive (with on-set assistance from Magnolia s Paul Thomas Anderson, one of our finest young directors). A classic Altman scenario: a first-rate cast urged to improvise the fictional final days of the 30-year-old public-radio show hosted by Garrison Keillor. Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin are a joy. John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson steal the film. Even Lindsay Lohan s not bad. Weaknesses: Far from Altman s best. Keillor, who plays himself, has a face for radio, and Keillor and Altman together, two maddeningly idiosyncratic artists, can start to feel a bit much.

10. Lady in the Water (July 21). Strengths: M. Night Shyamalan, the biggest brand name in suspense since Hitchock (his ego insists), steps out on a limb, finally. The Village hurt. So reportedly he ditches his inevitable Big Twist ending for old-fashioned fairy-tale magic: Paul Giamatti finds Bryce Dallas Howard in his swimming pool, and the girl is not human. Two fine actors and a filmmaker who knows how to set a mood have you seen his dreamy American Express ad? Weaknesses: I mean, have you seen his dreamy American Express ad? It s as smug and pretentious as his worst instincts. Plus, is Giamatti your idea of a go-to guy for a summer movie?

9. The Break-Up (June 2). Strengths: Best flat-out comedy of the season? Real-life Chicago couple Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn play the ins-and-outs of a Chicago couple. Vaughn is hot off Wedding Crashers; Aniston is hot off her only decent movie, Friends With Money. The script nails the tiny irritations of relationships, and director Peyton Reed, of Bring It On and Down With Love, knows how to make fluff infectious. Plus, Aniston gets naked (sort of). Weaknesses: Will probably be seen as a response to the Brangelina hit Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Could be overtaken between now and then by a Vinnifer Vaughniston break-up. They ve reshot the ending, which could be a good thing (but often means quite the opposite).

8. X-Men: The Last Stand (May 26). Strengths: The rare summer franchise that s grown smarter. The massive X universe expands again, with cult favorites Kitty Pryde (Hard Candy s Ellen Page) and blue brainy Beast, (Kelsey Grammer, of all people). The story line gets socially serious, and superheroes and angst always make a nice match. Said to be a tad melancholy. Also said to be the last X-Men movie. Weaknesses: They re probably lying. Expect lots of time devoted to arranging future spin-offs. Bryan Singer amscrays for the Superman films, leaving X-Men in the questionable hands of director Brett Ratner and this guy has still yet to prove he s better than Rush Hour 2 and Red Dragon.

7. The Science of Sleep (Aug. 11). Strengths: You thought French visionary Michel Gondry was out there with the Jim Carrey head-trip Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind here he explores the inner world of a young artist (Gael Garcia Bernal) using claymation, puppets, crepe paper... it s more whimsical than a nursery school arts-and-crafts session. A fluffy delight. Weaknesses: The ending is weak. Gondry, as a writer, isn t his own equal as a stylist, and he wrote this. The love story is nowhere near as heartbreaking as it was in Spotless Mind. Might find a more appreciative audience on DVD.

6. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man s Chest (July 7). Strengths: Johnny Depp, back as Captain Jack, the oddest action hero in ages. Actually, everyone returns, from Keira Knightley (in a cute buccaneer s hat) to Orlando Bloom. Behind the camera, again, is Gore Verbinski, whose pendulum-swinging habits (he flies from the somber Ring to the satiric Weather Man to this, suggests his auto-pilot has yet to engage.) And the trailer s not bad, either. Weaknesses: Depp, the most (only?) original superstar in Hollywood, repeats himself. The first film was a genuine surprise. (Remember, it was based on a theme-park ride.) You only surprise once. Is that the sound of astronomical expectations? The cast has already shot another sequel (due next year). Can a series so sprightly withstand a land rush quite this desperate?

5. Cars (June 9). Strengths: The latest Pixar. They re batting .800. Paul Newman and Owen Wilson (sweet casting) play, yup, old and new cars. Early word is that it s touching but not earth-shaking. Special note to Toledoans: There s a talking Jeep, in a co-starring role. Special note to NPR fans: Listen for Car Talk s giggling Ray and Tom Magliozzi. Weaknesses: You will believe a car can cry? NASCAR and Pixar sound like a crass combination, and the early trailers were duds. Digitally-animated cartoons are past the saturation point, even if, like all Pixar, this is meant as much for parents as for rugrats.

4. The Road to Guantanamo (Late June). Strengths: Genuinely compelling and incendiary in a summer that s light on topicality. Fascinating true story about British men of Pakistani descent, headed to a wedding, mistakenly grabbed by U.S. forces, sent to Cuba for years, then dubbed bad men by the president. Like United 93, it scores points by remaining apolitical by simply telling a great story. Director Michael Winterbottom (Tristram Shandy) is the most exciting British director on Earth. Weaknesses: There are maybe two exciting British directors on Earth. Unless it gets the right push, will be considered too artsy by half.

3. Superman Returns (June 30). Strengths: A thoughtful interpretation of the least-conflicted superguy of all, and therefore the toughest to dramatize. Bryan Singer, straight off the fantastic X-Men 2, tells the story of Superman s return to Earth after years away and provocatively, whether he still has relevance. Newcomer Brandon Routh wears the heck out of that jerri curl. Kevin Spacey gets Lex. If you say the trailer doesn t give you the chills, you re lying. Weaknesses: At a rumored $300 million (when you count marketing), it could be the next King Kong anything less than an enthusiastically received blockbuster will be considered slower than a speeding train. Warner Bros. has pushed this on so many directors (Tim Burton) and actors (Nicolas Cage), only a singular vision will work. (And what if that vision isn t yours?) The memory of Christopher Reeve casts a long shadow; and as good as Singer can be, his style is largely lacking fingerprints.

2. A Scanner Darkly (Aug. 4). Strengths: The long-gestating adaptation of Philip K. Dick s 1977 novel about an America that has lost the war on drugs, is ready. And it s a wonder. Directed by Austin master Richard Linklater, who aims high (Before Sunset) and playfully low (School of Rock); his next picture is already set for fall (and just as different), an adaptation of Fast Food Nation. Here Linklater returns to the animation technique he used on 2002 s eye-popping Waking Life: The film is shot, then artists paint over individual frames until it appears animated.

Painstaking and breathtaking. Keanu Reeves leads a cast that reads like a celeb rap sheet: Robert Downey, Jr., Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson. Weaknesses: Could induce more seizures than an episode of Pokemon. (Or is that a strength?) Commercials using a similar style have stolen some thunder.

1. Miami Vice (July 28). Strengths: As Phil Collins once sang on the old NBC show, I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord you think this is gonna be cheesy. You re thinking another Starsky and Hutch parody. Oh, no, no, no: if you haven t noticed, sometime in the past two decades, ever since he made his name creating the original series, director-writer Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral, Last of the Mohicans) became something of a class-act. He does away with the pastel blazers over T-shirts, the 80s setting, the rolled-up jacket sleeves even that famous synthesized score. Just Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx (as the original characters), and Mann addressing his favorite subject: men and guns and the lives they don t know they re missing. Weaknesses: The production was reportedly a tempest, literally: It shut down for hurricanes Katrina and Rita, among other, more man-made tantrums. Very few remember the show fondly; it ll have to prove itself to be taken at all seriously. But then, with expectations so low, how could it miss?

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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