Film: Blockbuster Nights

Parsing the bombastic summer movie season

Warner Bros. Entertainment

Christian Bale and Heath Ledger match wits in the latest Batman film.

The Showcase Cinemas Erlanger will forever hold a special place in my movie-going heart. Once the palace of local multiplexes, Erlanger's long, narrow screening rooms and spacious, promotions-laden foyer were the stuff of childhood legend: My impressionable eyes took in everything from The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark to Rocky III and Goonies in its then-plush environs. Yes, I still long for the cardboard Chewbacca that greeted patrons at the entrance.

Alas, Erlanger closed its doors for good on April 27. It will be replaced by a "new luxury theatre concept Showcase Cinema de Lux at Florence Mall," whatever that means, in late June.

This occasion strikes me as the perfect time to conjure the impact of the summer movie season, a four-month span in which more than 50 movies will be released in multiplexes nationwide. And while I long ago grew jaded with the rapidly bottom-line-driven aspects of the summer movie spectacle, I can't help but hold out hope that a few the season's offerings might pique my childhood fascination.

With that in mind I give you my 16 most anticipated (largely high-profile, big-budget) movies of the summer.

Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman

The lowdown: Bale and Nolan try to pick up where their darker interpretation of the Batman series left off two summer's ago. Speaking of dark, the trailer has left many viewers gasping at the garish visage of the late Heath Ledger's Joker.

(July 18)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo

The lowdown: Given Shyamalan's shamelessly self-important, stunt-finale-pimping, Hitchcock-vulturing track record, this could be another colossal bore. But I can't help it: The Happening, yet another paranoid thriller a about mysterious presence, actually looks promising. And Zooey's visage is always a bonus. (June 13)

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ron Perlman, Selma Blair

The lowdown: Del Toro follows his critically lavished gothic fairy tale Pan's Labyrinth with a return to his much more overtly pulpy roots. Look for this to be the most adventurous — especially when it comes to visual panache — of the summer's comic-book adaptations. (July 11)

Director: Fred Wolf

Cast: Ana Faris, Emma Stone, Kat Dennings, Colin Hanks

The lowdown: This looks really stupid ... in a good way. Wolf's pedigree as a screenwriter (Without a Paddle, Strange Wilderness) and the story's ludicrous premise (a bubbly Playboy bunny teaches a house of hapless sorority sisters to love themselves) make The House Bunny a questionable proposition. Yet Faris is one of the most gifted comediennes alive, which is enough to give this comedy a try amid the big explosions of summer.

(Aug. 22)

Director: Lewis Leterrier

Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt

The lowdown: Forget Leterrier — this is Norton's baby. Notorious for his strong opinions, the actor tweaked the screenplay and has been battling the studio about the movie's final cut. Behind-the-scenes squabbles and fanboy unrest aside, this new version has got to better than Ang Lee's convoluted take? Right? (June 13)

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone

The lowdown: The godfather of the well-made summer blockbuster returns to show us how it's done. But can an aged Ford still pull off the iconic Indy? Spielberg fortifies the series' resurrection with a superior supporting cast highlighted by a buffed-up LaBeouf and the ever-versatile Blanchett. Look for this cultural touchstone to be the box-office behemoth of the season. (May 22)

Director: Jon Favreau

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges, Leslie Bibb

The lowdown: Downey Jr. completes his improbable career comeback with his first mega-budget action hero role. Favreau has talked about making this a distinctive endeavor in a well-worn genre; the charismatic Downey's presence as the appropriately flawed, larger-than-life title character all but assures that goal. (May 2)

Director: David Gordon Green

Cast: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Gary Cole

The lowdown: Indie darling Green shifts gears with this ramshackle comedy about a stoner (Franco) and his pot dealer (Rogen) on the run after witnessing a murder. And, yes, it's yet another effort from the "producers who brought you Knocked Up and Superbad." (Aug. 8)

Director: David Mamet

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen, Emily Mortimer, Joe Mantegna, Alice Braga

The lowdown: Ejiofor gets his chance to interpret Mamet's taut, hard-broiled dialogue in a story set amid the Los Angeles fight world. Expect another of the writer/director's nuanced morality plays, this time populated by a diverse cast of newcomers and veterans. (May)

Director: Larry Charles

Cast: Bill Maher

The lowdown: The controversial talk-show host devotes an entire film to his ongoing smack-down of organized religion, which he blames as one of the reasons the world seems fractured beyond repair. Charles, fresh off his hilarious helming of Borat, is given the task of turning Maher's scathing, often hilarious observations into a cohesive, entertaining documentary. (July 11)

Director: Michael Patrick King

Cast: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattral, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Chris Noth

The lowdown: HBO just isn't the same without Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw. Sure, Sex and the City was an upscale fantasy, but it was also pretty funny and somewhat groundbreaking in its use of incisively frank female talk. Can The Sopranos movie be far behind? (May 30)

Director: Garth Jennings

Cast: Bill Milner, Will Poulter

The lowdown: British director Jennings mines his own childhood fascination with Sylvester Stallone's disgruntled warrior in this crafty coming-of-age comedy that looks to have more in common with Wes Anderson's Rushmore than anything in Sly's self-consciously macho filmography. (May)

Director: Errol Morris

The lowdown: Every summer needs a bit of sober counter-programming. Morris' documentary is the latest look at the Bush administration's questionable foreign policy and torture tactics, and includes an interview with Abu Ghraib poster-girl/scapegoat Lynndie England, whom no one will confuse with the Sex and the City girls. But the question still remains after the nonexistent response to such movie investigations: Will anyone watch? Better yet: Does anyone care? (June)

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins

The lowdown: Let's hope this latest effort from the McKay/Ferrell comedy machine cherry picks the best of Talladega Nights (the improv-informed, back-and-forth repartee between its leads) and leaves the rest (the disjointed narrative) behind. (July 25)

Director: Ben Stiller

Cast: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte

The lowdown: This Hollywood satire — in which the actors in a big-budget war movie are forced to become the characters they're playing — has been generating serious blogosphere juice. The cast alone should be enough to offset Stiller's sketchy directorial oeuvre. (Aug. 15)

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Cast: Angelina Jolie, James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, Terence Stamp

The lowdown: Think Fast and the Furious meets the Russian director's own Nightwatch series — except not as stupid as the former and not as trippy as the later. This A-list-actor-infested action-thriller could be the guilty pleasure of the summer. (June 27)

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