Summer Movie Round-up

The following article was slated to run in the print edition of today's The Counter Project.  Unfortunately, following a financial set-back, the paper has ceased publication effective Monday, April 25, although it will continue operating as a web-based magazine.  Since it will not be printed elsewhere, I've decided to post the article here, and unchanged from when it was originally submitted to my editor on April 16.

MOVIES

by Michael Hicks

After several years worth of slumping ticket sales, Hollywood is gearing up for yet another summer of prequels, sequels, reboots, robots, remakes, and comic book adaptations to draw in audiences.

With the recent release of Scream 4 (April 15), the unofficial kick-off of summer movie season began.  A likeable cast led by Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox, and an 11-year hiatus between sequels, helped scare up an audience of thrill-seekers who were probably just happy it wasn't another Saw movie or a watered-down, tepid remake of 1970s and '80s horror classics.

Fast Five, the fifth entry in the perpetual sequel machine that is the Fast & Furious franchise, opens April 29 and paves the way for bigger summer fare.  May 6 officially kicks off the summer movie season with Marvel's Thor.

With Shakespeare auteur Kenneth Branagh directing Oscar winners Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins, who join Chris Hemsworth as the title character, there is some serious dramatic weight amongst the comic book movie's Norse mythology.

Thor leads into Marvel's other tent-pole picture, Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22).   Set during World War II, Chris Evans wages war against the Nazis, led by Hugo Weaving's hideously, awesomely deformed Red Skull.  Both films pave the way for next summer's release of The Avengers, which will unite these two heroes with Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk.

20th Century Fox hopes to re-ignite Marvel's X-Men franchise with X-Men: First Class (June 3), a prequel flick set in the 60s.  The story explores the friendship and mounting tensions between Prof. Charles Xaiver and Erik Lehnsherr, otherwise known as Magneto, as they create the very first X-team in response to the escalating Cuban missile crisis.  Helmed by Matthew Vaughn, who directed last year's Kick-Ass, fan reaction has been surprisingly positive and the movie looks set to reinvigorate the faltering series after Bret Ratner struck out with X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006.

After nearly a decade of blockbuster comic book movies from Marvel, DC Comics has finally grown tired of resting on its laurels and is set to build its own franchise of movies not based on either Superman or Batman.  Green Lantern (June 17) sees Ryan Reynolds as an Air Force test pilot gifted with a magic ring and sworn into an intergalactic corps of peacekeepers working to prevent an alien invasion.

Lantern's first trailer was a tragic misfire with its unfunny humor and unfinished special effects, and left fanboys and -girls disappointed.  A longer trailer was recently released online and does a better job of showcasing the film's potential as an epic work of sci-fi.  Warner Bros. has faith, having already commissioned work to begin on a sequel, but they may have some difficulty in trying to sell the geeky goodness to mainstream audiences.

May 27 sees the release of The Hangover, Part II, which reunites the first film's cast and drops them in Thailand for another round of forgotten drunken debauchery and morning-after confusion that sees the group dealing with facial tattoos, shaved heads, and a monkey.  After the first movie became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy, a sequel was guaranteed.  It looks to be a solid repeat of the previous outing and chock-full of insanity, but it will have to bring in new material to differentiate itself as nothing more than a quick, carbon-copy cash-in.

Although Hangover stars nixed the possibility of Mel Gibson making a cameo in their movie, the Jodie Foster directed The Beaver (May 20), sees Mad Mel return to the screen for the first time since the very public dissolution of his relationship with Oksana Grigorieva.  Although the film was completed in 2009, its release was delayed in response to the controversy surrounding the conflicts between the two.

In The Beaver, Gibson plays a troubled husband who communicates with his wife and kids through a beaver hand puppet.  While it's not much of a stretch to imagine him as troubled, it's questionable if audiences are ready to re-embrace the star after a string of public humiliations.  His previous film, The Edge of Darkness, was listed as one of Parade Magazine's biggest box office flops of 2010.

May also sees a sequel to Kung-Fu Panda on the 26th, a week after Johnny Depp returns to the infamous role of Captain Jack Sparrow for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.  The fourth entry in the Pirates series see Sparrow chasing after the Fountain of Youth alongside Barbossa and Blackbeard, sure to be a perfect role for Deadwood's Ian McShane.  Those involved with the production promise a less convoluted, more enjoyable experience than the previous outing, with Penelope Cruz joining the cast as Sparrow's love interest as they grapple with mermaids and zombies.

Cars 2 (June 24) brings back racecar superstar Lightning McQueen for an international adventure, and marks Pixar's first sequel outside of the Toy Story franchise.  Pixar has yet to make a truly awful movie, and there's little reason to think they'll start here, so expect a fun, kid-friendly flick with a lot of broad appeal.  Owen Wilson returns to voice McQueen, and is joined by Michael Caine, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, and Bruce Campbell.

There's more car-related hijinks July 1, when Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon releases.  Promising to be more serious and darker in tone, the film is, in Bay's own words, the Black Hawk Down of the Transformers series as the villainous Decepticon's terrorize and destroy Chicago.  Shia LaBeouf returns for more mechanized mayhem, while Megan Fox is out after feuding with Bay and comparing him to Hitler.  She has been replaced by Victoria Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, no doubt picked by Bay for a first-time starring role thanks her all-natural thespian talents.

While Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II (July 15) is a guaranteed hit, movie-goers will likely be surprised by Cowboys and Aliens (July 29).  There is a lot of serious talent on- and off-screen here, with former Iron Man director Jon Favreau taking helm of a script penned by frequent JJ Abrams collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe, Star Trek), with Steven Spielberg producing.

The sci-fi western sees Daniel Craig as an amnesiac frontiersman who bands together with Harrison Ford's grizzled lawman to fight off an alien invasion.  Westerns have been sorely overlooked by audiences lately, but coupled with high concept ideas and special effect extravagance it could very well be the start of a new franchise.

Another sure-fire hit is Super 8 (June 10), from JJ Abrams.  Although most of the movie is still shrouded in mystery, as is typical of Abrams productions from Lost to Cloverfield and Star Trek, it appears to be an ode to earlier Spielberg fare, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  Set in the summer of 1979, a group of kids are caught in the middle of small-town madness following the derailing of a freight train transporting alien cargo.  There's sure to be a terrific sense of discovery and spectacle, and no doubt audiences will respond accordingly.

Less sure are the fates of this year's spate of remakes and reboots, as viewers are asked to go back to the beginning and witness the Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Aug. 5), a prequel to Charlton Heston's '60s and '70s string of flicks that blissfully ignores Tim Burton's half-baked remake.  An animated Winnie the Pooh (July 15) gets followed-up by a live-action version of The Smurfs (July 29), which brings those little blue CGI'd guys and gal into modern-day New York City, and Conan the Barbarian (Aug. 19) gets a 3D reboot, ignoring the previous Schwarzenegger movies in favor of more closely adapting the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard.

More sequels, like the kid-friendly Spy Kids 4 (Aug. 19) and horror-flick Final Destination 5 (Aug. 26) close out the season.  Both franchises have seen better days and it's unlikely either is being met with great enthusiasm.

For more discerning viewers, there is potentially smarter fare like The Debt (Aug. 31), a remake of a 2007 Israeli film and stars Helen Mirren.  The post-WWII movie sees three Mossad agents hunting for an escaped Nazi war criminal across Europe.   Likely to resonate among older audiences looking for substance and suspense over spectacle, it's unlikely to break box office records.  However, based on reactions from various 2010 film festivals, it could be a potential Oscar contender.

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Michael Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.


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