3 Summer Movies I Really Hope Don't Suck

1. Speed Racer (May 9th, Warner Bros.)

This movie theoretically has a lot to be excited about. Though I have never seen the original cartoon, Speed Racer boasts a pretty legit pedigree and stacked cast. The film was written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, of Matrix fame. If anyone were going to be able to stage sick race sequences in a Japanese-tinged future metropolis, while also writing in an at least semi-compelling story, it would be these guys. I know there were two movies that followed the original Matrix, two very long, very silly movies, but that first movie was obviously a real shot of life to the action genre, directly influencing as many films as Quentin Tarantino.

The cast is excellent; since I don't know the cartoon I can't base the choices on whether they fit the pre-existing characters, but based on the actor's past work it looks very solid.

(Side-note: this historically thorny subject - casting films based on a beloved original source, whether it be book, TV show, etc. - has really been perfected as of late. The Harry Potter films really nailed it, as did The Golden Compass. Even the original uproar about Heath Ledger as the Joker was silenced as soon as people saw him in the trailer; he looks perfect, as does Christian Bale for Batman. I'd love to hear what people think about the casting of Speed Racer based on the cartoon).

Playing "Speed", you have Emile Hirsch, a personal favorite since The Girl Next Door, who seems like a genuinely cool guy (albeit the type of cool guy who would probably think I was really lame) and a great actor. Christina Ricci is the love interest, and Susan Sarandon and John Goodman play the parents. Not to mention Matthew Fox as a fellow racecar driver, who got off the island for long enough to film his part. In short, not only is the cast loaded with marquee names, but marquee names that can really act.

So on the Pro side, a well-known and popular Japanese cartoon adapted for the screen by masters of 21st century action movies, starring a great cast. On the Con side, however, is the trailer, and particularly the TV commercials.

Once you see these, with the overabundance of neon, those really, really annoying looking kids, and the uninspired race sequences, it is hard to suppress those feelings of embarrassment, that awkward feeling of watching someone totally put themselves on the line for potential failure. The movie looks less like a futuristic, adrenaline-packed thrill ride (as a quote on the poster might say), and more like a B-rate Spy Kids, an action version of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, another famously atrocious adaptation of a beloved cartoon, featuring great actors at their worst. After seeing the commercial for Speed Racer, my roommates laughed in my face for having talked up the film in advance, astonished I had ever wanted to see it.

I'm still willing to give it a shot, for the Wachowski brothers and for Emile Hirsch and Matthew Fox, and I really hope the marketing people at Warner Brothers just really screwed up picking scenes for the ads and theatrical preview (which is still better than when the trailer far surpasses the actual movie, a la Blow, starring Johnny Depp in the Best Preview Ever, also known as Worst Trailer to Movie Ratio Ever). However, Speed Racer is looking like it could be an enormous disappointment to start the summer movie season.

2. Pineapple Express (Aug. 8, Sony)

Like every other American man of a certain age, I currently bow at the altar of Judd Apatow and his troupe. 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall; the hits keep coming and keep striking a nerve not just for the brilliant comedy but for that other stuff, the emotional sensitivity that captures the trauma of growing up and falling in love. The stuff that left my friend a blubbering mess after watching Knocked Up, and made me a loyal Apatow fan from Freaks and Geeks onward.

Pineapple Express is the gang's latest adventure, and seems to diverge from the general thesis of their recent comedies. The movie follows a stoner (Seth Rogen), who witnesses a cop commit murder and has to flee for his life, bringing his dealer (James Franco) with him. Even from that quick synopsis, Pineapple Express sounds completely different than what we've seen from these guys in the past. Pineapple looks to be a more straight up, buddy/stoner comedy. In itself this isn't a bad thing; after all, buddy movies and marijuana have provided some great comedy through the years. And who am I to criticize talented performers and writers for wanting to mix it up? But it's obviously a little disappointing to see a move away from the brand of comedy that made them unique in the first place. Since I haven't seen the movie this is a premature disappointment, and when I do see it (I most definitely will be seeing it) I guarantee I will still laugh; I just won't be following the laughs with the, "they got that exactly right; that's so true" reaction.

However, like Speed Racer, the trailer doesn't exactly instill a lot of confidence. There are some Yuks; Seth Rogen is good for a chuckle just by opening his mouth (in a good way), and I liked the bit when James Franco gets his foot caught in the car windshield, but I don't think I'm alone in feeling like this looked less than great. The best part of the trailer, as far as I could tell, was that they used the song "Paper Planes" by M.I.A. I'm glad that they've gotten James Franco re-involved in the Apatow posse (albeit looking ridiculous in a "pothead" get-up, not in a good way); it's almost as fun recognizing former Freaks and Geeks'ers in these movies (they really do all like each other!) as it is frustrating to see characters from The Wire sprout up in every single commercial. But maybe this group, that's been riding high (no pun intended) for a few years now, is due to come back down to earth. This is primed to be the Starsky and Hutch of the Apatow comedy reign.

3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (May 22, Paramount Pictures)

Indy 4 has the possibility of being the best movie of the summer. Spielberg's back directing from a story originally written by George Lucas, with Harrison Ford returning and looking the part, as well as a supporting cast featuring Shia Labeouf and Cate Blanchett (not to mention Karen Allen, returning as Marion Ravenwood, Indy's love from Raiders of the Lost Ark). The talent involved is peerless, and the first glimpses of the teaser don't look too shabby.

However, there are some concerns, which revealed themselves to me slowly, as if I were Agent Kujan figuring out Verbal Kint's true identity a minute too late ("There was a lawyer. Kobayashi."). The turning point where my anticipation turned to guarded panic was this article in Vanity Fair, which told the back-story of how the film came about. In 1993, George Lucas had already thought of the idea he wanted for a fourth film; he pitched it to Harrison Ford, who was not impressed. Neither was Spielberg, who was not opposed to a fourth film, just to Lucas' idea. However, Lucas stuck to his guns, kept pitching the same story, and finally the star and the director relented. This in itself isn't necessarily a bad omen, but it also doesn't breed optimism to know that the star of the movie, the most bankable actor in the history of cinema, rejected the idea again and again during the '90's, while he was continuing to make hit movies and his career was doing great (<em>The Fugitive, Clear and Present Danger, Air Force One), but suddenly decided it was OK to go for the fourth Indiana Jones, coincidentally at the time his career was slowing down. And with all due respect to the prodigious moneymaking talents of George Lucas, and as grateful to him as I am for the first three Star Wars movies, and even American Graffiti, he hasn't exactly been hitting creative home runs recently.

What is this idea he clutched to for fifteen years, before star and director came on board? As the article in Vanity Fair explains, and without giving away too much for anyone who wants to go in fresh, it concerns a specific "Macguffin," which is, "an object or device that kicks the story into action and drives it to the third act." Raiders of the Lost Ark had the Ark of the Covenant, The Last Crusade had the Holy Grail, etc. The Macguffin is of particular importance to the Indiana Jones films, not just propelling action but also providing the reason for being. As one can also see, it really makes or breaks the movie. Part of what makes Indy terrific is the historical myth of the back-stories. He is, after all, an archeologist, and there's an integral "faith vs. science" undertone to all the movies, particularly the first and third, that lends itself to religious or historical legend. And if you compare the first and third Indiana Jones films to the second (Temple of Doom), the reason #2 is the inferior movie is that the Macguffin was a lot less compelling; sacred Indian stones that magically control kidnapped children vs. two of crucial elements of Christian theology.

The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull will, according to Lucas and as relayed by Jim Windolf in his article, "nudge our hero away from his usual milieu of spooky archaeology and into the realm of science fiction", through this new Macguffin. That's a big red flag. Especially when Lucas elaborates to say he wanted the plot to mirror cheesy B-movies from the 1950's. Indiana Jones is who he is for his interest in historical artifacts, not Plot Devices from Outer Space.

Another note: for a movie as big as this one, the marketing has been very limited. A few bus and phone booth posters, some fifteen second TV promo's, and nary a full preview to be found anywhere. Some people I know take this to be a bad sign; the studio is not willing to sink money into promoting a shabby product. I actually find the lack of a constant onslaught of advertising and press for the movie refreshing, however, and potentially genius. Everyone knows this is coming out, and almost everyone will be seeing it; it is, after all, the next Indiana Jones. Just the fact that people know it's coming out is enough to get people to the theaters; all that running more commercials during American Idol would do is a) get people annoyed at seeing so many commercials for a movie they were going to see anyway, and b) waste a lot of Paramount's money. For even though I may be worried the movie will suck, I am not worried for its future financial success.