SN&R’s summer-movie preview

Film critics Jonathan Kiefer and Jim Lane are lifeguards on duty for this season’s cannonballs and bellyflops

It's still spring, but lately, it seems everyone's got summer on the brain. At least when it comes to movies, that is. Sure, it'll be a while before the temps really escalate outside, but it's definitely not too soon to shut yourself up inside and enjoy some complimentary air conditioning, tasty snacks and the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

Cuz summertime’s no time for the art-house movie or future Academy Awards-worthy contender.

No, this is the season of the slick, big-budget hits: Comic books come to life. Epic action-hero dramas. Eagerly anticipated sequels. You know, mindless, leave-your-brains-at-the-door fare.

OK, we kid. Kind of. But certainly, SN&R film critics Jonathan Kiefer and Jim Lane aren’t afraid to take on this summer’s biggest releases as well as contemplate the possibility of a few surprise sleepers.

To get a sneak peak at your hot-weather options, we hacked the guys’ instant-messaging feed to bring you their unfiltered take on all things Robert Downey Jr., Leonardo DiCaprio and hard-partying monsters.

Jonathan Kiefer to Jim Lane: Iron Man 3 opens May 3, and its publicity juggernaut forces us to accept that day as the official start of this summer’s movie season. For reasons I can’t explain, Iron Man was the one comic I collected for a while as a boy. Was it something about the armor, or did I aspire to be a brilliant alcoholic playboy billionaire? Anyway, my interest in the character had faded a bit by the time of Jon Favreau’s first Iron Man movie (2008), so it was nice to go in not feeling overly protective. Also nice to continue not feeling protective during Iron Man 2, which wasn’t as good. Now Favreau has handed his franchise over to action hack Shane Black, but hey, it still has Robert Downey Jr.—how bad can it be? Black knows Downey from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and seems to have been working in Hollywood since around the time I stopped collecting comics.

Jim Lane to Jonathan Kiefer: Not sure what to expect myself, besides a certain amount of slick fun. Much as I liked the first one, I have almost no recollection of IM2 beyond the sense that I didn’t waste my time. I’m fairly open to Shane Black, having enjoyed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (perhaps more than you did), which was the last picture he made. Truth is, with rare exceptions—Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers spring to mind—those comic-book-superhero flicks tend to blur together for me, especially once the sequels start arriving. Very few of them are as firm in my memory after a year as the first Superman is after 35.

Kiefer: Your blur of comic-book-superhero flicks can also include The Wolverine (July 26), where Hugh Jackman again tries his clawed hand at an X-Men stand-alone. And for that matter, let’s extend the blur to Kick-Ass 2 (August 16), with Jim Carrey joining Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz and Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s foul-mouthed action comedy of costumed adolescent vigilantes. These seem promising to their target demographics, which I suppose is all any of us really expect anymore.

Lane: Getting back to Superman—there’s Man of Steel (June 14). I’m even less sure what to expect from that one. I find director Zack Snyder wildly uneven. I enjoyed 300 and loved Watchmen (knowing Alan Moore’s graphic novel as I did), but Sucker Punch and that Owls of Ga’Hoole thing were several kinds of awful. The Christopher Reeve Superman films had their problems, for sure, but Reeve himself was the best Superman ever, and, I suspect, all but irreplaceable. Henry Cavill? He’s got some mighty big red boots to fill: Will he be the new Reeve or the new Brandon Routh? (Remember him?)

Kiefer: In Superman Returns (2006), I thought Brandon Routh seemed himself like some computer-generated artifact, and so perhaps perfectly suited to the project at hand after all. Surely there’s no making up for the goneness of Christopher Reeve. I guess all I really want from Henry Cavill is to confirm my amazement at how much better British actors are at faking American accents than vice versa. Even if he flubs it a little, so what? Superman isn’t really from Kansas, anyway. What most interests me is Snyder’s casting Michael Shannon, an actor I’ve always appreciated, as the supervillain General Zod. Of course, that’s the role Terence Stamp made so memorable in Superman II, so Shannon himself has a mighty big tunic (or kimono or lawn-and-leaf bag or whatever it was) to fill.

Lane: I’m intrigued myself at Snyder’s casting Russell Crowe as Jor-El and Amy Adams as Lois Lane. Otherwise, I’m not greatly encouraged by the preview trailer, with our hero’s hand-wringing angst and color-drained uniform. Where is the primary bright blue, red and yellow? This getup looks like it was woven out of steel wool by candlelight at the bottom of an iron mine. If they’re planning to Dark Knight-ify Superman, I, for one, will take some convincing.

However, I’m already half-convinced about Star Trek Into Darkness (May 17). J.J. Abrams never put a foot wrong on his 2009 reboot.

Kiefer: It had enough good sense not to mess with the essential stuff, like chemistry between the characters, yet enough gumption to make a few big changes —like, say, the complete annihilation of a certain character’s home planet. This sequel has Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch as the bad guy, which might prove even more exciting than Ben Kingsley as the bad guy in Iron Man 3. If Abrams somehow screws up his second Star Trek, which seems unlikely, he can always fall back on that other sci-fi institution whose reins he’s recently taken, namely Star Wars.

Lane: I know I’m dating myself here, but I was fresh out of high school when the original series debuted (the year Abrams was born)—I was the absolute bull’s-eye of Star Trek’s target audience. It won me over, then tried my patience, then drove me away by the end of the second season with its cheap sets, cheesy effects, campy stories and ham acting. Abrams’ movie won me back; it was almost exactly what I imagined (and pretended was there for as long as I could) when I thought about Star Trek back in the day. I could be wrong, but I expect Into Darkness to be this summer’s 900-pound gorilla. Anyhow, I’m ready to trust Abrams until he lets me down (on Star Wars, too, for that matter—but that’s a topic for another summer).

Two other sci-fi epics are getting a lot of advance play. One is the just-opened Oblivion with Tom Cruise. The other, Will and Jaden Smith in After Earth, opens on June 6. Both evidently deal with their respective heroes’ return to an inhospitable Earth after some catastrophe has driven the human race away. Hmm. Is this a trend? Or have the respective filmmakers not been noticing what other pictures were in development (or noticing too closely)? After Earth is the latest from M. Night Shyamalan—talk about wildly uneven!—though you’d hardly know it from the trailer.

Kiefer: You’re quite right about the “inhospitable Earth” trend. Our collective fears of climate change and environmental guilt shall at last fully saturate the market! Elysium (August 9), from the allegorically inclined director of District 9, involves Matt Damon and Jodie Foster in a futuristic epic about the “haves” living in luxury and in orbit, abandoning our ruined, overcrowded planet to the doomed “have-nots.” Perhaps quasi-relatedly, This Is the End (June 12) is a comedy with Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jonah Hill as themselves enduring an apocalypse. (The apocalypse never gets old, does it?)

Lane: Another déj&#;agrave; vu comes this summer with White House Down (June 28), trying to bring back a clap or two of the thunder stolen by Olympus Has Fallen. I had a better-than-expected time at the outlandish Olympus, while White House Down is from director Roland Emmerich, who hasn’t made a good movie since … well, ever.

Kiefer: Emmerich certainly hates that pesky White House! He blew it up so spectacularly way back in Independence Day (1996), an apocalyptic vision later almost made manifest on 9/11. Well, it’s a different world these days—except maybe at the multiplex. White House Down could be an exciting thriller, but seems as yet more like a desperate grab at past-movie glories.

Speaking of being borne back ceaselessly into the past, may we discuss The Great Gatsby (May 10)? I’ve found an email exchange between you and me from last August, in which a publicist sent word of that movie’s postponement from then until now, and you responded: “You know what that means: It stinks, and everybody at Warner Bros. knows it.” At the time, I liked the idea of director Baz Luhrmann casting Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan and Tobey Maguire as narrator Nick Carraway. What hung me up then (and still does) is the less likeable idea of Baz Luhrmann himself. For all his spangly sets—Gatsby looks beautifully designed, I’ll give it that—Luhrmann strikes me as insensitive to both the poetics of real literature and those of cinema. He stages showstoppers without remembering first to stage the actual shows.

Lane: Well said! Carey Mulligan is enough of a chameleon that I have no sense of her Daisy—but also enough of a chameleon that I’m willing to go along. DiCaprio and Maguire, on the other hand, strike me as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Nick to the very life. Alas, the trailer shows precious little else Fitzgerald would recognize, and for now, I’ll stand by my gloomy forecast. Come this May 11, that sound you hear may be the outraged author trying to claw his way out of the grave.

Kiefer: I would like to take this opportunity to get you started on The Lone Ranger. Johnny Depp as Tonto? Discuss.

Lane: Ah! I told you I was the bull’s-eye of Star Trek’s target audience, and you have correctly figured that 10 years earlier I served the same purpose for TV’s The Lone Ranger. What made kids like me love the “daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains” and his “faithful Indian companion” was their stolid, straight-arrow (no pun intended) rectitude—the sort of thing that doesn’t play so well today. (Honestly, I haven’t had the heart to hunt up some of those old episodes for fear of sullying my rosy childhood memories with the facts.) This new incarnation has, besides Depp’s bizarre-looking Tonto, director Gore Verbinski of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean pictures—not an encouraging sign. Ah, well, at least it’s likely to be easier to take than 1981’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger—but since that stinker was simply unwatchable, that isn’t saying much. Beyond that, is it true that this new version sets the masked man up as an empty-headed front man for Tonto, the real brains of the outfit? And if so, did anybody ask Seth Rogen how that idea worked out for him on The Green Hornet?

We’ve talked mostly about the high-profile wannabe blockbusters. Seems to me these summer seasons usually come down to one blockbuster—maybe two—and a four- or five-way scramble for a distant second. What interests me as much—maybe more—are the possible surprises. I mean, in 2002 everybody knew Spider-Man and Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones were going to dominate the summer—but who predicted My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Granted, “surprise” means by definition that we don’t see it coming, but do you have your eye on any candidates?

Kiefer: Hard to say. Last August, Woody Allen shot Blue Jasmine in San Francisco. He always plays it close to his chest, but the picture is said to be about a woman (played by Cate Blanchett) who moves there because she can no longer afford New York. (Obviously, Allen hasn’t lost his flair for a joke.) There was a period when Allen’s fans, including me, said that he really needed to step away from New York for a while. Well, after his on-balance rather-successful tour of European capitals, it’s heartening to find him back in California—if not in Los Angeles, where he once famously quipped that “the only cultural advantage is you can turn right on a red light.”

Lane: Heh. That was a long time ago, in Annie Hall. Now you can do that even in New York.

Kiefer: Allen-trivia completists will recall that San Francisco is also where Allen directed his first, Take the Money and Run (1969), and where he starred in 1972’s Play It Again, Sam. So for him, it’s a return to old stamping grounds—and maybe to old form. The last couple Allen films did well for themselves by hitting theaters around this time of year; if Blue Jasmine sticks to its projected July 26 release date, it could do the same.

Oh, wait, there’s one more high-profile wannabe we forgot. June 21 brings Monsters University, Pixar’s first ever prequel (I guess maybe the 3-D reissue of Monsters, Inc. just wasn’t enough in the way of franchise propagation). Now we’ll witness the frat-house antics of a pair of frighteners (voiced by John Goodman and Billy Crystal, reprising their roles) before joining the corporate world of harvesting children’s screams. OK. Not that it would ever happen—or would be a good thing if it did—but some part of me secretly hopes for something ruthlessly debauched here. Like, say, a shocking attempt to get in on the wave of college-kids-who-wanna-party movies, like Project X or 21 & Over—or hell, even Spring Breakers. Admit it: Wouldn’t it be fun—entertaining, at least—to see Pixar go there?

Lane: “Something ruthlessly debauched”? You mean like Cars 2? Seems to me Pixar has already gone there, and no, it wasn’t much fun. The gang tried to turn Cars into a James Bond movie, and now it looks like it’s going to turn Monsters Inc. into Animal House. God forbid they miss hitting a target that low, but I suppose anything’s possible. Personally, I wasn’t overenthralled by Monsters, Inc., but the kiddies loved it. Well, that was 12 years ago, and those 6- to 10-year-olds are in college now. Monsters U may just be a canny piece of marketing. Do I spy another trend? What’s next for Pixar? Woody & Buzz Go to White Castle?

Kiefer: “Woody & Buzz Go to White Castle”! FTW, as the kids say on those Interwebs. Come to think of it, your inspired concept there may well already have been developed (inasmuch as it can be) and submitted for our time-wasting consideration somewhere in the YouTube vortex. I’ll go looking for it as soon as I’m done typing this.