(100) dollars of summer

SN&R’s annual guide to the blockbuster-movie season—on a budget

A question of taste: Which duds will get your dollars at the movies this summer?

A question of taste: Which duds will get your dollars at the movies this summer?

photo illustration by william leung

The trailer for the upcoming Vin Diesel/Paul Walker parade Fast Five boasts that “Summer begins April 29.” Besides sounding like the plot synopsis for a Roland Emmerich-style environmental catastro-jack thriller (in which Jake Gyllenhaal presumably outruns CGI sunlight), the Fast Five tag line doesn’t go far enough.

In truth, what we used to call the “summer movie season”—a Memorial-to-Labor Day orgy of big, brand-name mind candy—can now be called “year-round business as usual.” But that won’t stop the entertainment press from publishing one slavering story after another in the coming weeks touting the many unnecessary sequels and superhero origin stories of summer 2011.

Of course, if you’ve ever looked at the inflated approval ratings of mediocre filler on Rotten Tomatoes (90 percent approval for Source Code, 83 percent for The Lincoln Lawyer, 72 percent for Paul … freakin’ Paul!), then you’ve realized that most critics approach movies like a homeless person content to get out of the sun for two hours.

Critics too often review films like people who never have to pay for their tickets, which should explain all of the unconvincing defenses of indefensible crap you’ll be reading in the coming months.

This got me wondering which summer movies I would spend my own money to see. If I skipped the screenings and instead allotted $100 to use on movie tickets between May and August, how would I spend my cash?

I approached this task not as an “objective” critic, but the same way anyone who pays to watch movies would—as though my own money were at stake. YouTube was scoured for teasers and trailers, IMDb cast and credit listings were thoroughly vetted, and all of my personal predilections and biases were brought defiantly to the fore (take that, local sodomy laws!).

Now playing in hell’s basement

Movie attendance is down 20 percent so far in 2011 (although box-office totals are still high, thanks to rising ticket prices), and even moviemakers and distributors are blaming the slump on lame product. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Sony Pictures chief executive Michael Lynton claimed, “There is just nothing terribly compelling about what we’re delivering as an industry.”

Agreed! I’d rather play Parcheesi in hell’s basement than sit in air-conditioned theaters showing half the movies coming out this summer, mainly because of my aversions to dippy rom-coms (Something Borrowed, Monte Carlo, Friends With Benefits), kiddie dreck (Mr. Popper’s Penguins, The Smurfs, Spy Kids 4), liberal guilt (Jumping the Broom, The Help), The Hangover knockoffs (Bridesmaids, The Hangover Part II) and Mel Gibson (The Beaver).

Nicole Kidman contact high

Those utterly unappealing pictures aside, the magical allure of industrial-size air-conditioning units on triple-digit summer days cannot be underestimated. I watched Nora Ephron’s execrable Bewitched in a particularly frosty theater during a record-high day in summer 2005, and the mind-altering qualities of recycled air and Nicole Kidman’s creaseless forehead made it seem like a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Along those lines, there are a few summer releases that I have no interest in spending my money on, but that I could talk myself into if the A/C went down and the temperature tipped 100: Paul Rudd in My Idiot Brother, the Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts comedy Larry Crowne, Bad Teacher with Cameron Diaz, the drama A Better Life and Woody Allen’s latest assault on his own reputation, Midnight in Paris.

Weed among the weeds

The average American movie ticket price is $8 and rising, but every Tuesday night, five bucks still buys you a double feature among the overgrown weeds and wafting weed smoke of the still-alive Sacramento 6 Drive-In. It’s a great way to stock up on brain-melting summer trash without breaking the bank. Based on their release date proximity, these are my dream drive-in double features this summer:

1) Kung Fu Panda 2/Cars 2.

2) Captain America/Green Lantern.

3) X-Men: First Class (great casting of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as young Charles Xavier and Magneto, but after the dismal Kick-Ass, I can trust director Matthew Vaughn)/Cowboys & Aliens.

4) Horrible Bosses from The King of Kong director Seth Gordon/Crazy, Stupid, Love from I Love You Phillip Morris directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.

5) Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark from producer Guillermo del Toro/Fright Night remake with Anton Yelchin.

6) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides/Priest (don’t worry, I’ve already made plans to hate myself in the morning).

7) Conan the Barbarian remake/Transformers: Dark of the Moon (ditto).

Eight for $8

After squeezing in 14 movies for just $35, I’m left with $65 to spend on air-conditioned theaters with films presented in focus. At an average price of eight bucks a pop (more if you care about 3-D, but I don’t), that leaves me enough money to see eight films, with one dollar left over to gamble on bum fights. That makes these my de facto Eight Most Anticipated Movies of the Summer:

Hesher: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the long-haired, van-driving, trampoline-of-fire-jumping dude/mentor. Ticket, please.

Everything Must Go: Will Ferrell switches gears slightly in Dan Rush’s comedic adaptation of the Raymond Carver short story “Why Don’t You Dance,” playing a relapsed alcoholic who lives on his front lawn after his wife kicks him out.

The Tree of Life: The inscrutable but visually striking preview for Terrence Malick’s latest gives little clue to its content—something about an authoritarian Brad Pitt and a mopey Sean Penn—but I’m sure there are enough pretentious shots of people wandering through fields to give New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis an orgasm.

Super 8: The trailer to J.J. Abrams’ top-secret monster movie lends it an enchanting, E.T.-meets-It feel, but Super 8 will have to deliver the goods to avoid getting labeled a Cloverfield clone.

Submarine: I don’t know much about it, but Richard Ayoade’s quirky British festival fave has a charming trailer to set to Maurice Chevalier and an old-school Wes Anderson vibe.

30 Minutes or Less: This August release is probably bolstered by its lack of a preview, leaving it mysterious and unsullied in my imagination. It comes from Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer and star Jesse Eisenberg, who I would pay to read the phone book (not for his acting, just because I’m a pervert).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2: Because my wife would put the Cruciatus curse on me if I didn’t take her to see the final installment in the boy-wizard film series.

Beginners: The preview for this quirky dramedy is such a beautifully made, self-contained short, it sets a fairly high bar for the actual movie. Mike Mills (the Thumbsucker filmmaker, not the bass player from R.E.M.) directs Ewan McGregor as a lonely schmo whose elderly father (Christopher Plummer, shoveling Oscar chum) comes out of the closet after his wife of 40 years passes away.

Summer duds redux

At the end of the day, $100 is a ridiculous sum to spend on summer movies, especially considering that the average American purchases only four movie tickets per year (although how far away are we from $25 tickets?). Given my druthers, I’ll stick with the free screenings and spend my $100 the usual way: on a large popcorn and a box of Milk Duds.