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2012 Summer Film Preview

Typical sequels dominate the summer slate, but smaller festival favorites offer hope

By Jason Gargano · May 16th, 2012 · Cover Story
The visions are as fresh as the day they entered my impressionable head. As a child weaned at the entertaining teat of 1980s blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, I have a soft spot in my movie-snob heart for a good summer popcorn movie. (I also succumbed to the glorious cheese of Rocky III, but don’t tell anyone.) The key word there is “good,” an adjective that doesn’t often describe modern summer movies, most of which are lowest-common-denominator products laden with special effects instead of interesting characters. 

Glancing at this year’s summer slate — which officially opened with the already mammoth The Avengers — only a handful of titles are likely to pique the interest of discerning moviegoers. By my count, a dozen sequels of one sort or another will grace the multiplex, and another batch are the spawn of previously existing material, including one based on a board game (Battleship!?). Apparently unique, creative visions are just too big a risk for a Hollywood system still adapting to its new, less culturally relevant reality. 

Yet we’re holding out hope that efforts from a number of pedigreed filmmakers and a smattering of smaller festival favorites will rise from the pack and distinguish themselves from the formulaic dross. With that optimistic thought in mind, here are the 20 summer offerings that look most promising. (Titles are presented in no particular order, though release dates, which are subject to change, are noted.)


DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace
LOWDOWN: One of the few high-profile summer tentpoles that looks genuinely intriguing, Prometheus is rumored to be a prequel to Scott’s previous journey into space — 1979’s enduring genre classic Alien. Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, makes her Hollywood debut as an archeologist who leads a spaceship crew (including the ubiquitous Fassbender) looking for the origins of life on Earth. We tend to shy away from movie trailers — they’re often far from an accurate gauge of what to expect and/or reveal too much — but this one is pretty badass, atmospheric and moody in all the right ways. (June 8)

Moonrise Kingdom

DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson
CAST: Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton
LOWDOWN: Anderson returns to live-action fare following the creative high-water mark/crafty stop-motion animation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox. The typically whimsical story, which Anderson co-wrote with Roman Coppola, revolves around the search for a pair of 12-year-old lovers who run away together to a small New England island in the summer of 1965. Look for another meticulously rendered world where set design is as important as emotional resonance. (May 25)

Beasts Of The Southern Wild

DIRECTOR: Benh Zeitlin
CAST: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
LOWDOWN: Check this description: “Faced with her father’s fading health and environmental changes that release an army of prehistoric creatures called aurochs, 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Wallis) leaves her Delta-community home in search of her mother.” Beasts was the critical darling at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, winning the Grand Jury Prize and yielding adjectives like “poetic,” “beautiful” and “visionary.” (July 6)


DIRECTOR: John Hillcoat
CAST: Tom Hardy, Shia LaBeouf, Jason Clarke, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Mia Wasikowska
LOWDOWN: Aussie rocker Nick Cave provides the screenplay for a Prohibition crime drama about gang of Virginia bootleggers who battle a corrupt G-man from Chicago (Pearce). If Cave’s last collaboration with Hillcoat (2005’s grime-encrusted The Proposition) is any indication, expect a gritty, dark-hued tale about the evil that men do. (Aug. 31)

The Headhunters

DIRECTOR: Morten Tyldum
CAST: Aksel Hennie, Nikolau Coster-Waldau, Synnove Macody Lund
LOWDOWN: Tyldum’s crazy Norwegian crime thriller features more than a few unexpected twists and a refreshingly unique protagonist (Aksel Hennie) who goes to any and all lengths to maintain his lavish lifestyle. For those who might shy away from subtitled movies, don’t worry — with its sleek surfaces and the oddly magnetic Hennie at its center, this 2011 Toronto Film Festival favorite would work just as well as a silent film. The Headhunters is a stylish DePalma-esque confection that goes down easier than any effects-infested Hollywood offering of similar ilk. (May 25)

Lola Versus

DIRECTOR: Daryl Wein
CAST: Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman, Zoe Lister-Jones, Debra Winger
LOWDOWN: While Lola Versus’ premise is not exactly groundbreaking — a recently dumped New Yorker seeks fulfillment before she turns 30 — the presence of Mumblecore-darling-turned-semi-mainstream secret weapon Gerwig as the lady in question is enough to make this worthy of interest. Side-note cinephile gossip: Gerwig is currently dating Noah Baumbach, the filmmaker who guided her in Greenberg. (June 8)

To Rome With Love

DIRECTOR: Woody Allen
CAST: Alec Baldwin, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Greta Gerwig, Roberto Benigni
LOWDOWN: Coming off the biggest box-office hit of his long career — and probably his best effort since 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway — Allen returns with another impressively cast comedy, this one set in Italy and revolving around numerous romantic vignettes.

Curiously, the 76-year-old Allen appears as an actor for the first time since 2006’s Scoop. No word yet on whether his character will bed Cruz’s “dream-girl” escort, though we wouldn’t be surprised if the fearless Gerwig was up for it — with Woody, Penelope or both. (June 22)

The Dictator

DIRECTOR: Larry Charles
CAST: Sacha Baron Cohen, Anna Faris, Ben Kingsley
LOWDOWN: Cohen’s first leading-man foray that doesn’t involve his blend of largely unscripted, Andy Kaufman-esque documentary and fiction (Borat and Bruno) is also his first character that didn’t originate via Da Ali G Show. The politically un-correct prankster plays a mondo-bearded Middle Eastern dictator who loses his wealth and power while on a trip to New York City. In a summer of mixed-bag comedic fare, The Dictator might be a season-opening savior. (May 16)


DIRECTOR: Tanya Wexler
CAST: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy, Jonathan Pryce
LOWDOWN: Gyllenhaal has never shied away from carnally charged material (has it really been 10 years since Secretary?), thus it’s no surprise that this one is a “romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England,” as Wexler describes it. Gyllenhaal plays a proto-feminist who challenges a stuffy young physician, aptly named Mortimer Granville (Dancy), who recommends that women diagnosed with “hysteria” employ a certain kind of stimulation to alleviate their affliction. (May 18)

Safety Not Guaranteed

DIRECTOR: Colin Trevorrow
CAST: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson, Karan Soni
LOWDOWN: Winner of a screenwriting award at Sundance, this indie comedy unfolds after a mysterious guy (Duplass) places a classified ad looking for volunteers to go on a time-traveling trip with him. One caveat: Their safety is not guaranteed. Three Seattle journalists, one of whom is played by the ever-enticing Plaza in goth-girl mode, take the bait. (June 8)

Rock Of Ages

DIRECTOR: Adam Shankman
CAST: Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Russell Brand, Julianne Hough
LOWDOWN: The shameless, populist-pleasing Broadway musical hits the big screen, complete with a tattooed, bare-chested Cruise singing ’80s Hair Metal classics like Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” and wearing a codpiece inspired by the Satan-worshiping dudes in W.A.S.P. And don’t forget a long-haired, mascara-wearing Baldwin, who as owner of the Bourbon Room Rock club declares, “This place is about to become a sea of sweat, ear-shattering music and puke.” Need we say more? (June 15)

Magic Mike

DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh
CAST: Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer
LOWDOWN: Soderbergh continues his relentless pace, offering up his 11th directorial effort since 2004 and his third in nine months after the effective thrillers Contagion and Haywire. Magic Mike follows a veteran male stripper (Tatum) who teaches a newcomer (Alex Pettyfer) the ins and outs of the profession. McConaughey, who’s likely to flash some skin of his own, plays the demanding boss where the dudes work. Give Soderbergh credit — this is anything but typical summer fare, another unique entry in a career that’s rapidly become one of the more interesting and diverse in American moviemaking. (June 29)

The Campaign

CAST: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis
LOWDOWN: Likely to be a much-needed comedic antidote to the upcoming 2012 presidential slog, The Campaign centers on a North Carolina congressional race wherein each candidate is flawed — Ferrell as a slick, four-term Democrat who makes an Anthony Weiner-style sexual gaffe; Galifianakis as a naïve “effeminate racist” Republican with a terrible mustache. Best known as the director of the Austin Powers movies, Roach is also no stranger to political content — he helmed the excellent HBO-backed dramas Game Change and Recount. (Aug. 10)


DIRECTOR: Oliver Stone
CAST: Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson, Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek
LOWDOWN: Based on Don Winslow’s acclaimed 2010 novel, Savages follows a group of Southern California marijuana growers whose business is threatened when a brutal Mexican drug cartel (led by Del Toro and Hayek) moves in on their SoCal turf. It’d be nice if this had some of the gritty-gonzo realism of Stone’s under-appreciated Salvador — which, unbelievably, hit theaters nearly 30 years ago — but we’ll settle for something better than the veteran director’s recent efforts, which have ranged from tepid (W.) to terrible (Alexander). (July 6)

Your Sister's Sister

DIRECTOR: Lynn Shelton
CAST: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mark Duplass
LOWDOWN: This sweet, lo-fi drama takes a similar approach as Shelton’s previous don’t-call-it-a-Mumblecore-inspired effort, Humpday. Duplass plays Jack, a single thirtysomething slacker who is dealing with the one-year anniversary of the death of his brother, whose ex-squeeze (Blunt) is now Jack’s best friend (and secret crush). Shelton does a lot with a little, making Your Sister’s Sister one of the season’s under-the-radar gems — and a reminder that big budgets and CGI are anything but necessary. (June 22)


DIRECTOR: Seth MacFarlane
CAST: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis
LOWDOWN: Hands down the oddest entry of the studio-backed offerings, MacFarlane’s big-screen directorial debut features a foul-mouthed, bong-sucking teddy bear with a thing for the ladies. Yes, a living, breathing teddy bear (via voice work by MacFarlane and organically rendered special effects) that has a love/hate relationship with his owner/human buddy (Wahlberg). Could be a mess, but given MacFarlane’s track record with similar material (he’s the creator of Family Guy), it could also be unexpectedly hilarious. (July 13)

The Queen Of Versailles

DIRECTOR: Lauren Greenfield
LOWDOWN: A crowd-pleaser at Sundance, Greenfield’s documentary tracks the construction of the biggest private residence in America, billionaire David Siegel’s 90,000-square-foot behemoth inspired by the Palace of Versailles. But there was one big curve ball after the home was completed: The 2008 recession hit Siegel’s time-share business hard, turning Greenfield’s film into a timely cautionary tale about our rapidly changing economic landscape. The Queen of title refers to David’s wife Jackie, a former beauty queen whose garish lifestyle evaporates before her eyes. (July 20)

The Dark Knight Rises

DIRECTOR: Christopher Nolan
CAST: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
LOWDOWN: Will the most anticipated movie event of the summer be as unrelentingly dark and foreboding as its zeitgeist-channeling predecessor, The Dark Knight? Based on the apocalyptic trailer, it looks like the answer is yes. Better yet, will it be as effective? If anyone can meet the heightened expectations it’s Nolan, who has pulled off the nuanced big-budget blockbuster thing better than anyone in recent memory. One request, Chris: Can you inject a bit of levity this time? (July 20)

Ruby Sparks

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
CAST: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas
LOWDOWN: Dayton and Faris finally follow up their unexpected 2006 breakout, Little Miss Sunshine, with a similarly small-scale tale about a romantically challenged novelist (Dano) whose latest character, the quintessential Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Kazan), ends up on his couch. Sure, it sounds like the stuff of B-movie schlock, but Kazan — a stage-trained actress and granddaughter of Elia Kazan whose bullshit radar is probably pretty acute — wrote the screenplay. Besides, would Dayton and Faris wait six years for something that didn’t ring true? (July 25)


DIRECTOR: Sam Fell and Chris Butler
CAST: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Anna Kendrick
LOWDOWN: Pixar’s Brave might have the bigger profile, but ParaNorman looks more enticing. Brought to us by the stop-motion gurus behind 2009’s visually striking Coraline, this 3-D-enhanced adventure revolves around a preteen boy (voiced by Smit-McPhee) with extrasensory powers who is counted on to save his Massachusetts hometown from a zombie invasion. Co-director Butler describes it as “John Carpenter meets John Hughes.” Sounds good to us. (Aug. 17)



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