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Beyond the Big Tent

Buzz-worthy, mid-level tent poles might prop up the summer box office

By tt stern-enzi · April 29th, 2009 · Movies

The first big stakes will be driven into the ground in May, but the real support structure for the summer of 2009’s attempt to propel the industry’s dreams of box-office glory just might be a scattered collection of projects that could bring niche audiences under the big tent.

Now, of course, I can hear the rising cries of dissension among you. It’s summertime and there’s nothing easier than explosions and superheroes and saving the Earth from aliens. Michael Bay’s got us jumping and jazzed up for more prime transforming. Why are you trying to lure us away from G.I. Joe’s epic struggles against Cobra or the big-screen adaptation of Land of the Lost, which has CGI dinosaurs?

We want Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. We want Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. And we want Rob Zombie’s H2 and a Final Destination (number four, for those counting) in 3-D because 3-D is all the rage now. But, truth be told, you don’t want those things.

It’s just the simple fact that we’re responding to what’s hyped incessantly through television commercials synergistically linked to sports playoffs and Internet banners and red-band trailers full of extra scenes that won’t appear in theaters anyway.

As they used to say on The X-Files, “The truth is out there.” You just have to be willing to look beyond the forest of (mis)information. Or, in keeping with the circus-tent metaphor, you have to wander past the big tent to the other carnival attractions because sometimes the real thrills are too big for the main show.

Wolverine (May 1)

All right, having made arguments searching for more than blockbusters during the summer boxoffice bonanza, I’m kicking this seasonal spotlight off with one of the expected studio big boys. The first spin-off of the successful Marvel comics X- Men franchise focuses on that seemingly ageless wild Canuck Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) who somehow made himself a central figure in all three X-Men big screen adventures. Now he gets his own tent, and 20th Century Fox sure is hoping it lures in more than the faithful comic book fans.

Like the two other potential blockbusters I’m including on this list, Wolverine seeks to be more than just a whiz-bang affair. Following the rejuvenated Batman model, it has a well-respected talent at the helm: Academy Award winner Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) brings a gritty sensibility despite the fact that he’s not known for being an action and special-effects devotee. Hood is a character and story guy, and he’s backed here not just by star-producer Jackman but also the likes of Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston and a cadre of up and comers. Rumors abound of spin-offs of this spin-off. Talk about a traveling roadshow.

Star Trek (May 8)

The starship Enterprise needs more than a reboot; it requires a rebirth on par with Daniel Craig’s reBourne James Bond. The clones of the television series, as well as the movies, have diluted what little magic might have existed for everyone except the most blindly loyal Trekkies. Plus, it has been 30 years since Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and we all realize that things have evolved a bit in those three decades, at least in the multiplexes.

So what do you do? Hire a proven enthusiast with a talent for creating engrossing characters and action hardwired with emotion and humor.

That would be J.J. Abrams, whose name is a brand (Felicity, Alias, Lost and Mission: Impossible III), much like that of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. And he certainly has assembled an intriguing cast of familiar faces (Eric Bana, Simon Pegg, Winona Ryder), relative newbies (Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, John Cho) and a quite logically legendary cameo (not Shatner, folks, sorry). Expect it to boldly go — and for audiences to surely follow.

Terminator Salvation (May 22)

James Cameron’s initial cyborg time-traveling adventure had B movie stamped all over it. By the summer of 1991, expectations for T2 had reached the A-list blockbusting stratosphere, and boy did it deliver the goods and then some, leading to the inevitable fall from grace that was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. So, now we get a fourth, which shares current pop-cultural space with a spin-off television series, from a director, McG, who isn’t known as a savior of action or good tastes. But the real salvation here just might be Christian Bale, the raspy moonlighting dark knight of summer who is pulling double duty on this list (see Public Enemies). Bale’s hotheadedness has become the stuff of Internet lore, but when you’re in a war with the survival of the human race at stake, I doubt you can find a better choice to lead the resistance.

Drag Me to Hell (May 29)

The summer season and Sam Raimi will likely send audiences in search of a certain loveable wall crawler, but this year Raimi’s got something else on his mind. He’s dragging us to hell in this big-budget horror story about a cursed loan officer (Alison Lohman) that sounds suspiciously like Stephen King’s Thinner, which was a great beach read but led to two less-than-fulfilling adaptations. Raimi’s been producing and promoting horror titles (The Grudge series, The Messengers, Rise) in between his marvelous comic-book translations — apparently he felt it was time to get his hands dirty again. His true fans will probably look at Drag Me To Hell as a precursor to his long-awaited return to the land of Evil Dead. At this stage, I’m willing to go wherever he’s taking me.

Public Enemies (July 1)

Michael Mann is so money when it comes to banks and the manly men who rob them. Heat is a classic thrill-ride of a caper and would be so even without the first heavyweight pairing of a couple of Godfathers (Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino). Nobody, and I mean nobody, does cops and crooks with as much soul as Mann, so his take on the original modern-day bank robber John Dillenger (Johnny Depp) and the lauded G-Man Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) should be at the top of the summer’s most-wanted titles.

500 Days of Summer (July 17)

This Sundance romantic comedy about the love affair between a hopelessly romantic greeting card writer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his hopelessly unromantic girlfriend (Zooey Deschanel) just might be the perfect antidote to the high-octane crash and burns. Plus, isn’t it time for a romantic comedy that forgoes the clichés of the standard arc and offers us a little more whimsy and some real heat between two attractive leads?

Funny People (July 31)

I am not your typical Adam Sandler fan. To be honest, I’m not even sure I can call myself a fan of the man at all, but I do love him when he gets a little serious: Punch Drunk Love is one of my favorite films of the last 10 years. It works so well because it takes his rude-boy anger and channels it into a realistic character in need of love and inspiration. So when I look at the trailers for this collaboration with Judd Apatow, I see potential. But unfortunately, I also envision a stand-up failure on par with the punchless Tom Hanks vehicle Punchline. Do the funny people (Sandler, Seth Rogen, Leslie Mann and Jonah Hill) in Funny People need to be funny? Maybe not, but I sure hope it’s intoxicating.

The Hurt Locker (July 31)

Kathryn Bigelow should be an A-list action director. Don’t laugh at me for saying this, but Point Break should have made her a goddess of the summer-action circuit. She made Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze cool by placing them in the middle of a white-hot cat-and-mouse game where the cat and mouse actually have a bond like Tom and Jerry occasionally did. But this Iraq War-based character study explores the world of hurt about to detonate as a bomb specialist team finds and deactivates explosives while in harm’s way. All of the other adrenaline highs are just for show, but Hurt Locker looks and feels like the real deal.

Inglourious Basterds (Aug. 21)

A small, special strike force made up of Jewish soldiers under the direction of a Southern hambone (Brad Pitt) engage the Nazis using violence and fear as a blunt instrument in this pulpy Quentin Tarantino blood orgy about dogs of war on a killing spree. No one is as witty and referential as QT, and as much as I’m looking forward to seeing Pitt chew and chew and chew some more on everything put in front of him, I need to say that I miss the restrained filmmaker and storyteller who beguiled me so with the underrated Jackie Brown. Maybe once the Basterds fade into glory, QT will leave the grind behind and come home.

Mesrine: A Film in Two Parts (Aug. 28)

Crime stories have lost their epic scale in the last few decades. I know Martin Scorsese finally won an Academy Award with one, but The Departed was a remake, and for all its bloody double-crosses and mirror reflections of cops and robbers, it never felt like it spoke about a condition of life beyond its make-believe world. Well, Vincent Cassell as Jacques Mesrine, France’s notorious public enemy No. 1, reminds us about the high costs of the highlife of crime.

The Girlfriend Experience (TBA)

It’s worth noting that there are sleepers that just might get the chance to step into the ring, including Steven Soderbergh’s latest experiment, which offers a return to the sex and lies of his early days. And since no one uses regular videotapes anymore, I suspect the third ingredient in this sinful mix just might be money, which we all know is the root of it all, right? If that’s not enough to whet your appetite, I might add that Soderbergh’s muse (Sasha Grey) is an adult film star making her mainstream feature debut.



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