Summer movies: Draws, duds, question marks and sleepers
The heat outside might be stifling, but multiplexes will have plenty of breathing room this summer.
It will be late July before there are more than two wide-release movies in one weekend vying for your $9. Inexplicably, that’s when the schedule starts to get ridiculously overloaded. Of 49 movies scheduled for wide release between May 2 and Aug. 29, 21 of them will be released in August.
Fewer options means better chances for most of those movies. Here’s a look at summer’s likely biggest draws, duds, question marks and sleepers. Release dates are subject to change.
THE BIG PLAYERS
Plot: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a cynical arms dealer kidnapped by terrorists and tasked to build missiles. When he escapes after forging a suit of towering technological armor, Stark gradually grows into Iron Man, a superhero with heavy boots of lead filling victims full of dread. Based on the Marvel Comics character.
Prognosis: Excellent. Not just any franchise could attract an actor of Downey’s caliber and quality. It should echo the action, scope and snap of “Batman Begins,” with more wiseacre humor.
Particulars: In what was meant to be the first of several comic-book character cameos of the summer, Samuel L. Jackson shot a scene as Nick Fury. Reportedly, the scene isn’t in the final cut.
Plot: The Wachowski Brothers go from the Matrix to the Mach 5 with an adaptation of Japan’s 1960s animated series. If he’s going to win a cross-country rally-car race, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) must outrun corrupt corporations and his nemesis Racer X (Matthew Fox). To give it a look of live-action anime, “Speed Racer” was filmed entirely against green-screened CGI backgrounds.
Prognosis: Good. “Cars” might look more realistic by comparison, but no other color palette will pop as strongly and it looks to marry propulsive action to the anime series’ silly-serious vibe.
Particulars: In development hell since 1992, the film once was to star Johnny Depp as Speed.
“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian”
Plot: Cat and dog chronologies have nothing on Narnia. A year here amounts to 1,300 in C.S. Lewis’s fantasyland, to which the quartet of Pevensie kids is again summoned. This time, they and the lion Aslan (voice of Liam Neeson) help a teenaged prince (Ben Barnes) overthrow his evil uncle.
Prognosis: Ho-hum. There’s no doubt this sequel will make crazy delicious money, but its trailer suggests even more rehashing of “The Lord of the Rings” … this time with masks like “Gladiator.”
Particulars: Expect more than double the special-effects shots, along with “redesigned” satyrs.
“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”
Plot: Following decades of full chicken dinners, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) finally partakes in a smaller-sized senior portion. After that, the adventuresome archaeologist again shakes up his quiet life of teaching to do battle with Russians for a crystal skull that might be from another world.
Prognosis: Great. Doubters say 19 years is too long for Ford, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to again whip moviegoers into Indy frenzy, but expect this one to linger throughout the summer.
Particulars: Could the gold city of El Dorado factor in somehow? One score cue is called “Orellana’s Cradle,” and Orellana is an Ecuadorian province where explorers sought El Dorado.
“Kung Fu Panda”
Plot: Kung fu is the only thing Po the panda (Jack Black) loves more than food, but he’s far from fast as lightning. Yet a master (Dustin Hoffman) whips Po into shape to fulfill Po’s prophecy as a “chosen one” to save ancient China from an evil warrior in this animated comedy.
Prognosis: So-so. With several weeks on “Wall-E,” it’s a hit, but how far can the story carry itself beyond its premise? And what’s the over-under on how often we’ll hear “Kung Fu Fighting”?
Particulars: It’s a Rain-y season this summer. First, the wildly popular Korean singer makes his American film debut in “Speed Racer.” Then, four weeks later, he’s singing “Panda’s” theme song.
Plot: In an update of the beloved classic sitcom, Steve Carell is Maxwell Smart, a nerdy intelligence analyst for CONTROL. Given his shot at becoming a full-fledged secret agent, Smart teams with sexy Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and hotshot Agent 23 (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson).
Prognosis: Good. The action looks light, but lively, and Carell should shake off 2007 (“Evan Almighty,” “Dan in Real Life”) with a character and conceit right in his nebbish wheelhouse.
Particulars: Then again, the team behind “Failure to Launch,” one of this decade’s worst movies, wrote the script. Look for Bill Murray in a cameo and a straight-to-DVD spinoff film just days later.
Plot: Humans have long since left behind an Earth overrun by trash, as have most of the tiny robots created to clean our mess. But one last lonely robot named Wall-E will travel to the ends of the galaxy to pursue his love for Eve, an outer-space droid, in Pixar’s latest film.
Prognosis: Great. Wall-E’s warbling voice makes for an instant smile, and the film’s schematic seems to be less “Short Circuit,” and more sumptuous sci-fi epic mixed with Buster Keaton comedy.
Particulars: Wall-E’s design combines a pair of binoculars with Luxo Jr., Pixar’s lamp logo.
Plot: Not all heroes are super. Hancock (Will Smith) boasts powers of supreme strength and supersonic flight. But alcoholism and an acid-tongue are his self-administered Kryptonite. He hires a publicist (Jason Bateman) to salvage his reputation only to fall for his wife (Charlize Theron).
Prognosis: Good, if odd. Smith’s in no danger of losing his Independence Day-weekend crown, but it sounds too dark to be a crowd-pleaser and looks too lightweight to satisfy the action crowd.
Particulars: Michael Mann was to direct this film before ditching it for 2006’s “Miami Vice.”
“The Dark Knight”
Plot: Batman (Christian Bale) battles the Joker (Heath Ledger in his last full performance). Up against a villain as theatrical as he is, Batman sees the fight grow personal while falling into a love triangle with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart).
Prognosis: Great. Forget the hyped morbid curiosity to see Ledger’s last performance. Bale and director Christopher Nolan’s returns can only further elevate a thrillingly revived franchise.
Particulars: Cillian Murphy, who played Scarecrow in “Batman Begins,” is said to pop up again.
Plot: It has to do with weed, not meteorological shorthand for Hawaiian rainfall. Dale (Seth Rogen) is a stoner who sees a hit while taking a hit and is targeted by a drug lord and crooked cops. He goes on the run with his dealer (James Franco) in a Judd Apatow-produced action-comedy.
Prognosis: Good. Apatow’s brand name has lost its luster with a series of misfires, but Rogen’s star power and a change of pace for Franco should make this superbad in the best way possible.
Particulars: Apatow has likened the film’s approach to “Lethal Weapon” with marijuana.
THE SECOND STRING
“Sex and the City,” May 30: Credit is due for not chasing a PG-13 to equal a sanitized syndication of this HBO series. Announced last week, an R-rating preserves its raw, frank appeal.
“You Don’t Mess with the Zohan,” June 6: Another Apatow-produced action-comedy, this one with Adam Sandler as a former Israeli commando pursuing his dream to be a New York hairstylist.
“The Incredible Hulk,” June 20: With star/co-writer Edward Norton’s more mainstream take on the un-jolly green giant, Universal seems to be acknowledging 2003’s “Hulk” as a regrettable error.
“Wanted,” June 27: Crazily amped-up action fuels this graphic-novel adaptation about a meek clerk (James McAvoy) who follows in his late assassin father’s footsteps. Angelina Jolie co-stars.
“Tropic Thunder,” Aug. 15: Downey’s huge summer (cameoing as Iron Man in “The Incredible Hulk”) continues with this concept comedy starring him, Black and Ben Stiller as actors in a war film mistakenly caught in actual warfare. Downey plays a white actor made black through surgery.
THE POTENTIAL PROBLEMS
“The Happening,” June 13: Following “Lady in the Water,” M. Night Shyamalan’s name might not be enough to sell an apocalyptic thriller starring Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel.
“The Love Guru,” June 20: Mike Myers’ first live-action film in five years — as the self-help guru Pitka — opens opposite “Get Smart” and has easily the worst of the summer-movie trailers.
“Step Brothers,” July 25: After seeing (or not) one Will Ferrell sports comedy too many, will fans take their ball and go home instead of watching him and John C. Reilly squabble as stepsiblings?
“The X-Files: I Want To Believe,” July 25: And it’s been a decade since Mulder and Scully’s film. The writers’ strike blew dust off an old script with a horrid subtitle. Why not just “X-Files 2”?
“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” Aug. 1: Brendan Fraser returns after a seven-year dormancy for a franchise that previously benefited from a lack of “Indiana Jones” adventures.
“The Strangers,” May 30: This long-shelved thriller about a couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) besieged by home invaders has a preview that’s perfectly pitched for freaky-deaky scares.
“Mamma Mia!,” July 18: Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan star in an adaptation of the popular Abba musical that’s likely to do better overseas than here, although it looks like free-spirited fun.
“He’s Just Not That Into You,” Aug. 1: Fictionalized self-help books rarely make good movies, but “The Celestine Prophecy” didn’t have Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Connelly and Scarlett Johansson.
“Swing Vote,” Aug. 1: The lone vote of an average Joe (Kevin Costner) will determine the U.S. presidency in a comedy that could benefit … if real-life election coverage doesn’t wear us all out.
“Hamlet 2,” Aug. 29: To save his school’s drama program from termination, a teacher (Steve Coogan) writes a sequel to “Hamlet” in a go-for-broke comedy that was a breakout Sundance hit.
Nick Rogers can be reached at 747-9587. Read his blog, Unpainted Huffhines, at blogs.sj-r.com/unpaintedhuffhines.