From Superman to Julian Assange, a zombie apocalypse to the collapse of White House, celebrity burglars to Shakespeare in black-and-white, summer movie season is kicking off with enough eclectic material to please just about everybody – even jaded old me, which is really saying something.
In the first of our three-part summer movie preview, we look at nine of the films slated for release through the end of June; check bocamag.com in a couple weeks for an inside look at titles being released in July.
This Friday, June 14
Man of Steel
Why see it: I’ve already seen this one, so I can provide more than a preview. In what may be Hollywood’s biggest box office draw for weeks to come, “Man of Steel” revisits the Superman mythos under the new vision of “Watchmen” director Zach Snyder, who reboots the hero’s origin story with a few key changes. The cast is checkered with great A-listers, from Amy Adams and Russell Crowe to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, and when it’s really on, this 143-minute epic paces itself masterfully, spinning Superman’s growing pains through the prism of alien-invasion paranoia.
Why skip it: Unfortunately, Snyder doesn’t understand the restraint of “less is more,” and there’s enough bludgeoningly loud violence on tap to fill an entire trilogy of movies. “Man of Steel” eventually becomes a desensitized goulash of CGI destruction for ADD-addled adolescents, piled on to excruciating excess.
Stories We Tell
Why see it: Sarah Polley, the Canadian actress-turned-director who has given us two excellent narrative features with “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz,” tries her hand at documentary by spelunking her own ancestry. Born to a family of professional storytellers, Polley interviews these talented, charismatic yarn-spinners to find an elusive truth about her mother, who left a trail of unanswered questions when she died. “Stories We Tell” is already being heralded as one of the year’s best films, and I can’t wait to see this genre-defying mix of personal history, mystery and meditation of the craft of storytelling.
Why skip it: Some have complained that Polley is too emotionally close to her subject matter to view it through an objective documentarian’s lens, and there may be others that simply aren’t captivated by the live storytelling paradigm. But I wouldn’t miss this film.
World War Z
Why see it: Brad Pitt, who’s been slumming it in art-house ghettos lately, takes the lead as the only star wattage in this disaster epic. He plays a U.N. employee who tries to save the world from a zombie apocalypse, and its lavish 3D photography looks to present a convincing, unyielding vision of a nation crippled by an inexplicable plague and subsequent martial law.
Why skip it: “It’s not the end of the world,” as the saying goes, but it is in Hollywood. It seemed like last summer, we had too many Armageddon movies, in the fashionable lead-up to the end of the Mayan calendar. But we’re well past December 2012, and we’re still being flooded with End Times blockbusters, with “World War Z” nipping at the heels of “After Earth” and “Oblivion.” Am I the only ones who’s suffering from a little apocalypse fatigue?
The Bling Ring
Why see it: Master filmmaker Sofia Coppola directs this true-story-based drama about a group of fame-obsessed teenagers who become criminal bandits after they burgle the houses of some of Los Angeles’ most popular celebutantes. If anyone can channel teenage angst with both artistry and a critical, all-knowing eye, it’s Coppola, who gave us “Marie Antoinette” and “The Virgin Suicides.” If this film is done well, it could offer a discomforting mirror into the desperate cravings for notoriety that plague so many in our generation of exhibitionist millenials.
Why skip it: Every great director misfires now and then, and if it’s Coppola’s time to do so, this film, with its potential for self-absorbed nihilism and obnoxious characters, seems a possible candidate for failure.
Much Ado About Nothing
Why see it: I’ll be reviewing this one in detail later this month, but suffice it to say that Joss Whedon, the creative mind behind “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” has brought out the magic of Shakespeare in this austere, black-and-white adaptation of one of the Bard’s frothiest comedies. Shot on a micro-budget in between Whedon’s two “Avengers” movies, “Much Ado About Nothing” is frivolous, as its title suggests, but it’s also uproariously funny and undeniably human, with cast of dependable character actors that fully grasp Shakespeare’s difficult diction.
Why skip it: If you think that shooting Shakespeare in black-and-white and in a plainclothes setting is kind of pretentious, it probably is. And for anyone without a fondness for the Bard, this adaptation won’t win them over. Its absence of A-listers further subjugates the film to a limited art-house audience, though I’m sure Whedon doesn’t have a problem with that.
Why see it: I’ve seen this film as well, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s about an Arab surgeon, who has assimilated himself into Israeli society, and whose life is upended with the revelation that his Palestinian wife has set off a suicide bomb that killed about a dozen people in a Tel Aviv café. As the doctor returns to his roots in Nablus to discover the reasons for his docile wife’s sudden turn to radicalism, he uncovers uncomfortable secrets. “The Attack” is mystery, sociopolitical commentary and domestic drama all in one, and it’s masterly in every way.
Why skip it: If you’re a member of the Arab League, you’re definitely skipping this one. It’s directed by Ziad Doueiri, a Lebanese-American, and the film has been banned in nearly every Arab country, because it refuses to demonize Jews, and because its director broke an arcane law by entering Israel to shoot on the nation’s streets. I suppose if you’re averse to hot-button issues, there are plenty of examples of pure escapism at the local multiplex. But for those who don’t want to check their brains at the box office, you can do no better this summer than “The Attack.”
Why see it: As an uptight, friendless FBI agent whose bureau doesn’t respect her, Sandra Bullock is paired with Melissa McCarthy’s equaling alienating Boston cop to take down a ruthless drug lord. We know both of these women can be funny when given the right material, and with “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig at the helm, “The Heat” could be another profitable, audience-pleasing example of female-fronted crassness.
Why skip it: I was hoping the trailer would make me laugh a lot more than it did. Many of the jokes pander lazily to McCarthy’s tough-as-nails persona, with screenwriter Katie Dippold providing the star with ever-more-outrageous insults to her subordinates. Even if it works, this film is unlikely to reinvent the wheel for either of these actresses.
White House Down
Why see it: Just a couple of months after “Olympus Has Fallen” went off like a puny sparkler, director Roland Emmerich is hoping for fireworks with a similar vision of the nation’s capital under attack by paramilitary invaders. Channing Tatum is a lunkheaded, newly hired Secret Service agent, and Jamie Foxx is the president, together forming the White House’s only line of defense from inside the building’s bowels. I’m most impressed with the supporting cast, an assemblage of impressive stars that barely made it into the trailer, including Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Woods and Richard Jenkins.
Why skip it: But great actors can’t always save a doomed project. “White House Down” may please action lovers, but director Emmerich (“Independence Day”) has never strived for much else. And I don’t see a whiff of originality in the trailer, from the explosions to the confrontations to the scenarios in which its embattled heroes find themselves trapped.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks
Why see it: Because it’s the latest film from master documentary director Alex Gibney (“Enron,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Gonzo”), and that’s all I need to know. Glowing early reviews have indicated that “We Steal Secrets” captures all of the nuances of the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange; Bradley Manning, the corporal who leaked the most sensitive military information to WikiLeaks; and the current, uneasy relationship between national security and cyber technology, which only grows more relevant with every passing news cycle.
Why skip it: Only if you, to quote an iconic Jack Nicholson outburst, “can’t handle the truth.” Gibney makes the most sobering and powerful documentaries in the country, and it doesn’t look like “We Steal Secrets” will be an exception to his stellar track record.