Summer Movie Preview 3: At Wit’s End

The huge box office blockbusters of summer are all second sequels, so now movie-goers are stuck with a slew of trilogy-enders before September arrives again. What’s worse is that they’re slowly but surely crushing those innocuous Tribeca and Sundance Film Festival darlings’ unfortunate releases in May and June.

Case-in-point: after Waitress director Adrienne Shelly was murdered in her NYC apartment last November, her film’s premiere at Sundance this past April garnered red-hot reception from critics. Despite its lofty adoration and even more unceremonious background, nary a mention circulated past Spiderman 3’s first-week aggressive hijacking of box office revenues.

As summer begins pummeling movie-goers with cash cows, the question plaguing our minds should be, “Is all this hullabaloo justified?” If you need a reason to drop coin on this year’s most anticipated popcorn flicks, rummage no further-the University Press sifts through the murk of CGI animation and formulaic mediocrity to present the best ways to reap the most enjoyment from your summer.

Spiderman 3 *** (three stars out of five)

Speaking of cash cows, Spiderman 3 was sure to ride the box office gravy train well into June months before its release; as a result, spring’s comatose slug was at once jolted to life, as Spidey has already netted the opening day box office record, the opening weekend record, the largest theater opening (4,252 screens), the largest per-screen average ($34,807) and the fastest to $1 million crown (two days), according to Box Office Mojo.

Massive profits aside, everyone’s friendly neighborhood web-slinger is not everyone’s favorite sequel. The $250 million price tag alone reveals much over-ambitiousness on director Sam Raimi’s part surrounding its production. After spending a year in developmental hell over screenplay gripes, the finished product suggests a few joyrides through a processed meat grinder.

Mostly, it suffers from weak continuity and editing, such as when Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) dumps fiancí© Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire). The following sequence skips Pete’s grieving entirely and finds ol’ Spidey frolicking with eye-batting blonde temptress Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard). Ineffective segues notwithstanding, Spiderman 3’s clumpy mudball of a script is destined to rank low on the average Joe’s wish list anyway-the promise of eye-popping CGI and a resolution to a trilogy a half-decade in the making, suggests many more record-breaking revenues to come. Spiderman 3

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (May 25) *** (three stars out of five)

After generating nearly $1.06 billion worldwide and grabbing the honor of sixth-highest grossing film of all time, this trilogy-ender is basking in high expectations. Three weeks removed from Spiderman 3’s release (and thus unlikely to conflict), PotC 3 peddles a surefire box office formula. Dish out a pirate stew featuring a cliffhanger with the enthralling Geoffrey Rush as a return-from-the-dead Barbossa, an imperiled Jack Sparrow seconds from being swallowed by a mucous sea creature and a spritz of Captain Morgan rum and you’ve bought yourself a remorseless revenue-sucking juggernaut well in advance of Pirates 3’s release.

Add the curious spectacle of Curse of the Golden Flower’s Chinese virtuoso Chow Yun-Fat and Rolling Stones founder Keith Richards in the same scene into this star-studded cauldron and Disney will net its final treasure hoard before the Pirates franchise utters its dying breath.

That’s because ol’ Johnny Depp is so curiously watchable as Jack Sparrow that any convoluted dreck he stars in glimmers like pirate’s gold. Catch this flick only if you need closure; otherwise, leave this convoluted mess at the ship docks.

Pirates of the Caribbean 3

Ocean’s Thirteen (June 8) (four stars out of five)

Joining the Ocean’s Thirteen powerhouse cast for this betting round is renowned Godfather maestro Al Pacino, who’s more inclined to erect a caricature of himself (with hoo-hah!’s and “Say hello to my little friend!”s included), than canvass his finely-sharpened chops in a meaty Broadway play, the London stage or among weaker-caliber performers in an art house flick. Instead, Pacino parades himself among actors of equal renown as Willy Bank, a casino owner who double-crosses one of the original Ocean’s Eleven, Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould). For his troubles, the vengeful Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his safe-cracking partners-in-crime launch an assault against Bank’s ritzy Vegas casino.

Director Steven Soderbergh’s yet-another heist, like a 24-hour Vegas buffet, wants to peddle us clumps of limp bacon, the mystical “yellow glop” resembling creamed corn and stacks of cheap prime rib, while still expecting us to grasp his pal-around inside humor. In Ocean’s Twelve, the muddled franchise couldn’t string together a line of dialogue that wasn’t wittily self-indulgent, so what resulted was an incoherent plot that kept audiences captivated with blithe, fanciful banter, but distanced from any three-dimensional character development. With Ocean’s Thirteen, Soderbergh’s flimsy lark staggers along that same majestic casino carpet, but now we know better. Right?

Replacing top-tier Hollywood starlets Catherine Zeta-Jones and Julia Roberts are the noticeably less eminent Ellen Barkin (from…uh, Palindromes?) and (rumored) Angelina Jolie, who’s never one to detach herself from Brad Pitt’s hip. But it doesn’t matter-this well-oiled engine of frenetically-entrancing actors is aiming to hit all three “7”s at the box office regardless of its crapshoot plot. Gamble on this for the spectacle, for the Soderbergh-Clooney inside-joke you’ll never get and for that comical back-and-forth gibing.

Ocean’s Thirteen

Live Free or Die Hard (June 27) (***** five stars out of five)

This third…whoops, fourth (got caught up there for a second) Die Hard outing may on the surface reek of the Bad Boys II syndrome (i.e. any sequel revived several years after its predecessor solely for greed), but the trailer bespeaks something else. Startlingly intelligent is one phrase that springs to mind, as movie-goers rejoin Detective John McClane exactly twelve years after the last sequel-you know, that time when Bruce Willis was still riding the coattails from his career-rebounding role in Pulp Fiction.

Although Live Free or Die Hard shares the early-July/Independence Day coveted spotlight with another 1980’s cult linchpin, Transformers, unimpressive early returns on the latter are sparking renewed life for the wisecracking NYC gumshoe. In between McClane’s patented leathery retorts to criminals, his 50-year-old body is hurtled from skyscraper to skyscraper, chucked down an elevator shaft and thrown from a vehicle seconds before it crashes head-on into a helicopter.

This time around, John rescues his daughter from the clutches of an internet-based terrorist organization, but the question whether this semi-forgotten franchise slumbering peacefully in nostalgia-land can latch onto Transformer’s lion share of the box office take remains unclear. But what is undeniably clear is the single, familiar catchphrase ringing out from the explosive trailer: “Yippee-ki-yay, mutha*****!”

Sometimes, that’s all you need to grab an audience. Live Free or Die Hard