In last year’s summer movie preview, the film staff at The A.V. Club intrepidly mock-predicted the “Death Of The Blockbuster,” only to be greeted with the strongest critical and commercial crop in recent memory, including year-end favorites The Dark Knight and Wall-E. Though the season is already taking a mulligan with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, we’re now flush with a feeling of mock-optimism (and sometimes genuine optimism) about Summer ’09, which almost certainly means the entire studio apparatus is going to collapse by the end of August. So it’s with an excess of enthusiasm and hype that we present to you the least-bad summer ever.
Bulletproof premise: It’s hunks a-go-go as G-Man Christian Bale sets his sights on public enemy number one, fame-crazy gunman John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), while Pretty Boy Floyd (Channing Tatum) has his own tangles with the law.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Bale, Depp, and writer-director Michael Mann are all forces to be reckoned with and they have juicy real-life material to draw from in this big-budget adaptation of Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave And The Birth Of The FBI. Mann has a proven track record with fact-based dramas (The Insider, Ali) and it’d be hard to find two more heavyweight actors to anchor a big, sprawling drama than Depp and Bale.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Bale’s off-screen antics might prove fucking distracting, sucking audiences out of what promises to be one of the summer’s classiest and biggest entertainments.
Ice Age: Dawn Of The Dinosaurs
Guaranteed kid-appeal premise: A second sequel to the 2002 hit about a bunch of wacky, mismatched ice age animals again has Manny the mammoth being cranky, Sid the sloth being needy, Diego the saber-toothed tiger wondering if he should really be hanging out with these dorks, and various threats and adventures pulling them together. Also, that annoying squirrel-thing Scrat is still trying to get an acorn, except this time he meets a sexy she-squirrel named “Scratte.”
Why it’s going to be awesome: It has all those voice performers from the previous two Ice Age movies: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, and Queen Latifah. Why would such high-powered stars deign to work on a film unless the script was stellar and they were truly excited by the project?
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: “Scratte.” Seriously.
Totally gay premise: Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles—the team behind the Borat movie—rejoin forces for another 90 minutes of guerrilla filmmaking. Instead of a clueless Kazakh filmmaker, Cohen plays Brüno, a clueless (but totally fabulous) Austrian fashion reporter who travels the world spreading confusion and exposing barely hidden homophobia.
Why it’s going to be awesome: You remember Borat, right? Cohen has been doing Brüno for just as long, and he’s got the character down perfectly. Plus, the movie is much likely to go to deeper and darker places, with Cohen putting himself in more real danger as a flamboyant homosexual than he did as a harmlessly weird foreigner.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: There’s a chance that Brüno’s catchphrases will permeate the cultural consciousness the way Borat’s “Ees nice!” did. Let’s let Cohen play these characters, shall we?
I Love You, Beth Cooper
Wedgie-licious premise: When a valedictorian with nerdish leanings (Paul Rust) uses his graduation speech to express his lifelong love of Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere), hijinks ensue.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Readers embraced the source material, a novel from veteran humorist Larry Doyle (The Simpsons, The New Yorker). So why wouldn’t they embrace the movie?
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: The trailer features the words “Directed by Chris Columbus” and makes the film look like a beer-soaked headache of bug-eyed jocks vs. nerds clichés. On the other hand, before he began his long career failing upwards via Stepmom, Bicentennial Man, Rent, and other films, Columbus made the fondly remembered ‘80s teen comedy Adventures In Babysitting. That’s a pretty thin thread on which to hang hope, but it’s a long summer. Let us have it.
(500) Days Of Summer
Charming premise: A heartbroken Joseph Gordon-Levitt skips back through his memories of his relationship with the ever-quirky Zooey Deschanel, trying to figure out why he couldn’t make it work with a self-professed “anti-romantic.”
Why it’s going to be awesome: Levitt is one of the best young actors working today, and the movie’s snazzy look and Two For The Road-esque structure promises to be at once lively and bittersweet.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Deschanel appears to be playing what might as well be dubbed “the Zooey Deschanel role,” as the kind of doggedly eccentric and self-absorbed young person that only indie record store clerks and insecure grad students fall for.
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
Snape-suspecting premise: Okay, get this: There’s this kid who discovers he’s a wizard… What? Don’t have all day? Okay, then this is the adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s sixth, and penultimate, Harry Potter book.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Though the film series began dully (see the I Love You, Beth Cooper entry for reasons), it’s gotten better as more skilled flavorful have taken the helm and the growing-up-in-public cast has eased into their roles.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Rowling’s longer books are pretty tough nuts to crack and this one has to wrangle both a sprawling plot and some operatic emotions if it’s going to work.
Xtreme premise: The U.S. government tasks a team of highly intelligent, specially trained guinea pigs with stopping a billionaire’s diabolical plot to destroy the world with household appliances. Only problem: The FBI has confined them to a pet shop instead.
Why it’s going to be awesome: This isn’t just any old sass-talking guinea pig adventure. This is a sass-talking guinea pig adventure produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. That means 3D! Conspicuous overproduction and explosions! Nicolas Cage as Speckles The Mole! Bruckheimer’s ability to lure top talent, mostly likely through spiking their cocktails with Rohypnol, pays off again with a loaded cast in both voice (Steve Buscemi, Penélope Cruz, Sam Rockwell) and live-action (Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Bill Nighy) roles.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: The two trailers have two separate references to the Pussycat Dolls’ song “Don’t Cha,” so that should drive expectations to the floor even before the fart-in-a-hamster-wheel gag. (Or the droppings-in-the-cage gag, for that matter: Why are sentient guinea pigs so much more sensitive about their leavings than the other kind?) The combination of irreverent animals, poop jokes, 3D, and Bruckheimer pyrotechnics will turn the nation’s children into overstimulated hellbeasts who won’t go down for a nap for a week.
Bone-chilling premise: Shaken by the loss of their unborn child, Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard decide to add to their family another way by adopting an angelic little girl named Esther from the orphanage. But it turns out that behind that dark, creepy, vaguely Eastern European façade lies, well, exactly the ill-intentioned little scamp her adoptive parents should have sniffed out long before taking her home.
Why it’s going to be awesome: From Village Of The Damned to The Exorcist to Ringu, evil children have proven to be a reliably creepy horror staple, and there’s no reason to believe the coal-eyed, pig-tailed young Isabelle Fuhrman will prove otherwise. Farmiga and Sarsgaard are two of the best actors around, and their presence lends instant legitimacy to what might have been run-of-the-mill horror product. Surely they know what they’re doing, right?
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: On the other hand, Robert De Niro appeared in Hide And Seek and Liev Schreiber starred in a slavishly faithful remake of The Omen, so great actors are drawn to schlocky evil kids movies like moths to flame. Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s résumé includes the remake of House Of Wax and that wasn’t remotely scary, despite the presence of devil incarnate Paris Hilton.
The Ugly Truth
Men are like [fill in the blank], but women are all like [fill in the blank] premise: Daytime TV producer Katherine Heigl hates the star of her show, a sexist pig (Gerard Butler) whose dating advice to women begins with “It’s called a StairMaster… Get on it.” It’s like they’re totally opposites. But if Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat have taught us anything, and they have, it’s that opposites do not repel each other and are instead drawn together.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Err… Bear with us here. You’ve liked Butler and Heigl in other things, right? Maybe you’ll like them here? We’re trying. Hey look! Cheryl Hines is it. That’s something. Also, much of the creative team was behind Legally Blonde, which is… sort of okay. Right?
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Based on the trailer, at one point Butler uses an earpiece to give Heigl advice during a date. Said advice includes, “Put the hot dog in your mouth… sloowwwlllyy.” Maybe they saved the best laughs for the movie.
Bittersweet premise: When a superstar stand-up comic played by Adam Sandler thinks death is imminent, he begins to re-examine his life and his relationship with an ex-flame (Leslie Mann). Seth Rogen co-stars as a struggling funnyman who becomes Sandler’s protégé and assistant. Audiences are sure to be guffawing through their tears
Why it’s going to be awesome: Judd Apatow has a pretty amazing track record as a director (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) and producer, so expectations are sky high. The cast is loaded with funny folks: Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman, Aziz Ansari, Leslie Mann and, um, The RZA.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: The trailer makes it look like an Apatow version of a Lifetime movie—all gooey sentimentality and life lessons. (And it gives away too much of the plot, so the spoiler-averse should not watch it.) Also, the Sandler factor might cancel out the usual Apatow awesomeness. It sure did in last summer’s You Don’t Mess With The Zohan.
They Came From Upstairs
Ball-busting premise: A bunch of kids on vacation with their parents must use shrill slapstick to defend Earth from an invading force of short, nasty CGI aliens who look astonishingly like updated versions of the rubber critters from 1985’s The Ghoulies—especially when emerging from a toilet, as one does in the trailer.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Ghoulies was great, right? Wasn’t it? We never saw it.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Director John Schultz hasn’t worked since helming 2005’s The Honeymooners. It’s possible that after four years, his directating skills might be a little bit rusty, resulting in what may not be the best possible wacky comedy-adventure in which kids turn their grandma into a kick-ass wire-fu ninja with an alien game controller.
G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra
Merch-inspired premise: A movie based on a TV show based on a toy line based on another toy line, G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra has “multiple revenue streams” written all over it. Set in the near future, the film will tell the origin story of the Joe team’s enemy organization, Cobra.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Live-action movies based on cartoons never fail artistically. There’s so much great backstory to the conflict between G.I. Joe and Cobra that even if the producers offer just the tiniest glimpses of plot, they’ll be on solid ground. Also: Lots of shit will blow up, and the good guys will win—but at a cost.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: There’s a chance that having at least one “arthouse” actor in the mix (Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Cobra Commander) will mean less screen time for shit to blow up. Then again, Marlon Wayans plays Ripcord, so it might all even out.
Julie & Julia
Prémisse délicieuse: In this mouth-watering comedy based on Julia Child and Alex Prudhomme’s My Life In France and Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, frustrated temp Powell (Amy Adams) finds direction when she decides to cook each of the 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Writer-director Nora Ephron’s film contrasts Powell’s experiences with those of Child (played by Meryl Streep) during her exile from the states and life in France during the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Is there anything more sweepingly cinematic or visual than women preparing food? Factor in Ephron’s genius for avoiding the cutesy, precious, and cloying and you’ve got a surefire winner! Bon appetit!
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Simultaneously adapting two bestsellers set decades apart might just be a successful recipe… for disaster!
Dazzling premise: Returning to the kid-friendly green-screen hijinks of the Spy Kids series and The Adventures Of Sharkboy And Lavagirl, writer-director Robert Rodriguez follows a bullied 11-year-old (Jimmy Bennett) who gets hit in the head by a rainbow-colored rock that grants wishes. Soon enough, he’s terrorizing his adversaries in the already weird town of Black Falls, but he has trouble keeping the rock from falling into the wrong hands.
Why it’s going to be awesome: The Spy Kids movies were good while they lasted—at least the first one was novel, anyway—and who didn’t love The Adventures Of Sharkboy And…
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: … Aw, who are we kidding? Rodriguez does well enough when tackling lowdown genre trash—who wouldn’t want to see his proposed feature-length version of the super-cool Machete trailer from Grindhouse?—but his habit of making spastic, cheap-looking, backyard special-effects spectaculars for his children has gotten out of hand. And this time, he’s dragging William H. Macy, Kat Dennings, and James Spader into the muck along with him.
When In Rome
Adorable premise: Magical coins from an Italian fountain cause a number of wacky suitors—Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, Will Arnett—to stalk (but sweetly) cold-hearted museum curator Kristen Bell. But her heart only melts for the super sexy guy, played by Josh Duhamel.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Summer romantic comedies are usually nuanced, well-paced affairs, so When In Rome will hopefully offer a sweet respite from all of the season’s action-packed blockbusters. There’s also the constant sense of mystery: Will the female lead end up with the male lead and live happily ever after? It’s never easy to tell.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Do the words “from the writer-director of Ghost Rider” mean anything to you? What about “a Disney romantic-comedy from the writer-director of Ghost Rider”?
Rocking premise: Unpopular high school rock-nerd Gaelan Connell is asked by one of the hottest girls in school (played by Alyson Michalka) to help her improve her band in time for a big competition. It’s like Bring It On for the Coachella crowd!
Why it’s going to be awesome: Haven’t all teenage alt-music buffs dreamed of the day when the jocks and cheerleaders at their school would recognize them for their awesome taste?
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Movies like this often devolve into a litany of name-dropping, without much commitment to really understanding the indie scene. Plus, the presence of High School Musical’s Vanessa Hudgens as the plain-Jane alternative to Michalka would seem to indicate that Bandslam might be little more than a Disney Channel original spiced up with the occasional Death Cab For Cutie reference.
Metaphor-rich premise: Aliens, the outer-space kind, land in Africa where they’re treated like aliens of the immigrant kind, confined to isolated neighborhoods, and treated with fear and disdain.
Why it’s going to be awesome: This late-summer release, the first-feature from South Africa’s Neill Blomkamp, is something of a mystery. But Peter Jackson’s name as a producer bodes well, as does an intriguing premise and a grittily spooky trailer.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: It sounds a bit like the not-that-great 1988 movie Alien Nation, doesn’t it?
Ghiblicious premise: A “goldfish princess,” or young mermaid, forms a relationship with a 5-year-old human boy and decides to become human, causing a dangerous imbalance in the world around them.
Why it’s going to be awesome: It’s the latest animated film from “Japanese Walt Disney” Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, etc.) That’s all the pedigree it needs.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: While the trailers look fitfully beautiful, it’s reportedly aimed at a much younger audience than Miyazaki’s recent movies, with a simpler, cartoonier style to match. Also, Disney is releasing it with an overdubbed soundtrack by the usual blanded-up celeb voice cast (Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Miley Cyrus’ younger brother).
The Time Traveler’s Wife
Achingly romantic premise: A man who involuntarily and unpredictably jaunts through time develops an unconventional relationship with a woman he keeps meeting on his travels.
Why it’s going to be awesome: It’s based on a terrific, beautifully constructed, heartfelt novel by Audrey Niffenegger. Since Hollywood has never had a problem doing right by its source material, we can surely expect the film to capture all the complexity and deep, nuanced emotion of the original.
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Repeated rescheduling, changes in the cast and creative team, and significant release delays suggests that somebody out there thinks this movie is less than terrific. But they have to be wrong, right?
Fanboy-servicing premise: Brad Pitt leads a squad of Jewish-American soldiers who rage through Nazi-occupied France, scalping Germans and changing minds. Quentin Tarantino helms an outlandish WWII epic based on a script he’s been working on for over a decade.
Why it’s going to be awesome: Uh… because it’s by the most awesome writer-director who’s ever made movies in the history of ever? Hell-loooo?
Why it might be slightly less than awesome: Shut up shut up shut up! This movie will be awesome! And even if it’s not, we’ll still pretend it is.