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2015 Summer Movie Preview: A Four-Month, Blockbuster Festival

Contrary to its lack of dramatic prestige and blitzkrieg of CGI, the summer movie season is not that different from any big-time film festival. Seeing every title on their respective schedules is both impossible and not recommended, for sake of not dying from a lack of sleep or overdosing on corn syrup. And both are a test of the human body’s physical appetite for cinema, regardless as to the size of one’s will. 

In the spirit of many movie gatherings going on at this time of year, RogerEbert.com is proud to pretend that the oppressively large upcoming season is actually a four-month film festival. It’s the flashiest way to see new narrative, documentary, and animated features out there, not to mention with the most accessible screenings (your local multiplex). Although, it will lack in post-screening Q&As, and the thrill of bumping into James Franco at a nearby Mexican restaurant. You’re on your own to make those happen.

In our seasonal preview below, we've organized all of the summer’s major theatrical releases into categories familiar to a fest program’s grouping, ("Main Competition," "Filmic Females") while adding a few special ones of our own ("Blockbuster vs. Nature," "Older Visions, New Stakes,” etc.). As each title arrives, RogerEbert.com will have review coverage of all these films throughout the season. And of course, while spending your summer time at the movies, make sure to support your local, actual independent festival as well.

MAIN COMPETITION

With almost everything in this preview remaining unseen as of publishing, here are six hot-shot films that have the most overall promise, though some will be banking a few hundred million more than others.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1): Marvel Studios’ various superhero ingredients re-assemble for an even bigger ice cream sundae, this time finding their latest adversary in the mega-powerful Ultron. As much as this tent pole might inaugurate an exorbitant season with a superhero preference, the narrative allegiance of writer/director Joss Whedon goes a long way, as seen in his giddy soiree “The Avengers.” Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel. L. Jackson, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, and Cobie Smulders star.

Tomorrowland (May 22): Director Brad Bird creates an intellectual family sci-fi adventure with this original screenplay that’s co-written with “LOST” scribe Damon Lindelof. George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Judy Greer, Hugh Laurie, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn star in this very intriguing movie that already has its title theme park.

Aloha (May 29): Bradley Cooper plays a military contractor who rekindles a past love, and also starts a new one, in this amicable Hawaii-set romantic comedy from maestro of the heartstrings Cameron Crowe. Emma Stone, Rachael McAdams, John Krasinski, Bill Murray, Danny McBride, and Jay Baruchel also star. 

Spy (June 5): After making a hit female buddy cop movie with “The Heat,” writer/director/hero Paul Feig takes on the unlikely action hero narrative with his returning comedic superstar Melissa McCarthy, working opposite Rose Byrne, Jude Law, and Jason Statham.

Inside Out (June 19): After aptly playing with our emotions in the 2009 film “Up,”co-director Pete Docter presents the complicated feelings of a girl in this highly curious follow-up. This original script features the vocal talents of Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Phyllis Smith, and Richard Kind. And if the buzz from presentation of the film at CinemaCon is to be believed, Docter has assembled another effective winner. 

Southpaw (July 24): A boxing movie could be an adrenaline boost that a pummeling blockbuster lineup needs, especially one that boasts a bulked-up performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, an original screenplay co-written by Kirk Sutter (of “Sons of Anarchy”), and the direction of Antoine Fuqua, previously of “The Equalizer” and “Training Day.”

OUT OF COMPETITION

Even the prestigious Cannes Film Festival hosts a few titles for little reason other than having them there. Just ask “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which played “Out of Competition” in 2011, or “Grace of Monaco,” which premiered at the fest last year with the same designation, and is now headed straight to the Lifetime channel on May 25. Contrast to those in our “Main Competition,” here are a few titles that fail to instill a promise of quality, or justification of existence. 

Entourage (June 3): Hoping to duplicate the financial success of those oh-so-terrible “Sex and the City” movies, another HBO brand lunges for the big screen. Finally, more bro-time with these Hollywood chums, but with the dull promise of a cameo bonanza. Starring Adrian Grenier, Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Connolly, Jeremy Piven, and many famous faces.

Ted 2 (June 26): Last year, Seth MacFarlane’s western vanity project “A Million Ways to Die in the West” tumble-weeded through the nation’s multiplexes. Now, he’s trying to woo back viewers with a sequel to his arrested development hit, but the groan-worthy trailers show that the first film’s charm might have been a one-time deal. Mark Wahlberg, MacFarlane, Amanda Seyfried, Morgan Freeman, and Liam Neeson star.

Max (July 26): The studio that gave us “American Sniper” goes back for your patriotic box office support, this time with a cute, cuddly, and 100% American German Shepherd as its focal point. Director Boaz Yakin’s “Max” smells like a throwback to squeaky-clean animal narratives (before they could talk) and maybe even some good ol’ propaganda. Starring Robbie Amell, Lauren Graham, Thomas Haden Church, Jay Hernandez, and Josh Wiggins

Hitman: Agent 47 (August 28): The box office whipping boy of this summer will be “Hitman: Agent 47,” an unwelcome reboot of a 2007 video game movie starring Timothy Olyphant that very few saw. The film’s previews might boast an elaborate helicopter crash (you take what you can get), but its release date of August 28 will undoubtedly suffer from the very real condition of summer movie fatigue. Starring Rupert Friend, Zachary Quinto, Ciarán Hinds, and Thomas Kretschmann

CLASSIC CINEMA

Film festivals aren’t strictly about discovery. This summer is, by no shock, particularly heavy on the retrospective inclinations celebrated by other fests, as it looks back upon many previous icons of movies, music, and television to create new perspectives in 2015.

Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15): Director George Miller resurrects cult character Max Rockatansky for a new embodiment in this apocalyptic actioner starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, the fourth from the franchise. 

Love & Mercy (June 5): On the other sensory side of a movie-viewing experience there are two entries here that will honor the vibrations and vigor of classic music (and both feature Paul Giamatti). The first is “Love & Mercy,” in which the modern cinema will meet the life story of definitive pop genius Brian Wilson. The film has played well at a few previous festivals, and features Paul Dano and John Cusack playing Wilson at different points in his life.

Terminator: Genisys (July 1): Arnold Schwarzenegger is locked and loaded in full nostalgic form for this fifth entry in the technophobic franchise, directed by Alan Taylor of some “Game of Thrones” episodes, and the dreadfully boring “Thor: The Dark World.” Alongside Schwarzenegger are Emilia Clarke, Matt Smith, Jai Courtney, and J.K. Simmons.

“Mr. Holmes” (July 17): This summer surprisingly only features one Sherlock Holmes tale, that of "Mr. Holmes.” It stars Ian McKellen in a twilight-era version of the beloved sleuth, from a story based on a novel by Mitch Cullin ("A Slight Trick of the Mind”), as directed by Bill Condon.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (July 31): A couple of other heroes will get the big screen treatment, with two 1960s series getting the upgrade from their TV roots. The first is when Tom Cruise will be tasked with a very difficult thing for a fifth "Mission: Impossible” movie. As per the previews, this one features Cruise dangling from a plane. Also starring Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, and Simon McBurney.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (August 14): Director Guy Ritchie will try to duplicate his “Sherlock Holmes” magic with an adaptation of the "Man from U.N.C.L.E.” series, another spy adaptation with inevitably problematic punctuation. Starring Alicia Viklander, Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, and Elizabeth Debicki.

Straight Outta Compton (August 14): In a California musical certainly different from that of the other classic music tale “Love & Mercy,” the long-gestating N.W.A. biopic "Straight Outta Compton“ finally hits theatres. Band member Ice Cube has promised that it includes both "gang banging" and "Reaganomics" (per his speech at last week's CinemaCon). Starring O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aldis Hodge, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, Paul Giamatti, and Keith Stanfield

FILMIC FEMALES

Like the Chicago International Film Festival’s “Reel Women” categorization (among other fests), this summer offers entries of various sizes that boast female writers and/or directors, with a few of them carryovers from the likes of Sundance, Toronto, etc. 

Welcome to Me (May 1): In this promising comedy, Kristen Wiig plays a woman who gets her own talk show (and abandons her meds) when she wins the Mega-Millions lottery. Shira Piven directs from a script by Eliot Laurence, in a film that includes appearances from Thomas Mann, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Loretta Devine, and Tim Robbins.

Hot Pursuit (May 8): Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara make for an unlikely duo in this action-comedy from Anne Fletcher ("27 Dresses," "The Guilt Trip") about a cop (Witherspoon) protecting the widow of a drug boss (Vergara). Expectations are tempered, but the buddy genre is always welcome especially if this one is at all inspired by the goodwill of "Spy" director Paul Feig's "The Heat."  

Infinitely Polar Bear (June 19): Writer/director Maya Forbes makes her debut with this dysfunctional family tale starring Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saladana. This one was loved at Sundance back in 2014, and is finally coming back to the surface.

Trainwreck (July 17): Comedian Amy Schumer leads one of this summer's few comedic tentpoles, and wrote the script for this promising next film from director Judd Apatow. Erik Childress got on board with the film after seeing it at SXSW this year stating that it's Apatow's best since "Knocked Up.” Starring Schumer, Bill Hader, John Cena, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Marisa Tomei, and Jon Glaser.

Ricki and the Flash (August 7): The band assembled here is irresistible - "Rachel Getting Married" (among many others) director Jonathan Demme directs from an original screenplay by "Young Adult" writer Diablo Cody, in a movie starring Meryl Streep, in which she plays an aging rocker. Even better, according to a Rolling Stone interview with Demme, Streep's guitar playing will be for real, as the golden actress invested six months into learning the instrument.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (August 7): Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård and Bel Powley star in this Sundance success, which marks the debut of writer/director Marielle Heller. The film is based on the novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, and tells of a teen artist who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. Sam Fragoso saw the film at Sundance, and expressed that it “adroitly tackles a teenager’s sexual odyssey with candor and beauty.” 

BLOCKBUSTER VS. NATURE

Just like how the Berlin, Miami and Milwaukee international film festivals can’t get enough of their special categories, this summer’s programming involves the specific recognition of the unexpected events in our environment that bring us together.

“San Andreas” (May 29): Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson meets his match against Mother Nature when the aftermath of an earthquake makes it hard for him to find his estranged daughter. Alexandra Daddario, Carla Gugino, Ioan Gruffudd and Paul Giamatti co-star in this 3D disaster movie.

“Paper Towns” (July 24): Two hip whippersnappers (played by Nat Wolff and Cara Delevigne) journey through a self-proclaimed landscape of various moist fibers dried into flexible sheets in order to find themselves. Here’s hoping that this is an adaptation of a better John Green novel than last year's “The Fault in Our Stars,” or at the very least, that this story doesn’t end where “San Andreas” begins.

Pixels (July 24): America’s tiresome teenager Adam Sandler rides again, this time in a Chris Columbus-directed adaptation of a two-minute short originally by Patrick Jean about aliens attacking the world as video game characters. Kevin James co-stars as the President of the United States of America, and numerous video game brands are set to wreak nostalgic havoc on our planet.

NEW VISIONS

Along with the indie circuit, promising new filmmakers can also be discovered at the multiplex. Here’s where previous smaller successes allot certain talents the keys to tentpole franchises and/or major casts, as a studio’s budget goes into the hands of creative forces simultaneously getting first-hand experience with the craft. 

Pitch Perfect 2 (May 15): After directing a few short films and starring in many others, Elizabeth Banks makes her feature debut behind the camera with this sequel to the 2012 musical hit. Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson star in this follow-up about their acapella group entering an international competition.

Insidious: Chapter 3 (June 5): Horror screenwriter Leigh Whannell moves behind the camera to direct this prequel to the “Insidious” franchise, taking over the series duties from his frequent collaborator, “Furious 7” director James Wan.

The Gift (July 31): Actor Joel Edgerton has been carved out a robust acting filmography in the past few years (“Animal Kingdom,” “Warrior”), but has also been developing an authorship for thriller screenplays like “The Square” and last year’s “The Rover.” Now, Edgerton co-stars, writes, and directs his first big feature, a horror vehicle starring Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman about a strange guest.

Vacation (July 31): Two fledgling comedy screenwriters, John Francis Daley and Jonathan M. Goldstein (“Horrible Bosses,” “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”), try to kick-start the long-dormant "Vacation" franchise, with Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the next generation of dorky Griswolds.

OLDER VISIONS, NEWER STAKES

Upping the ante on the pressure that’s experienced on a first-time director’s set, the summer movie season provides the viewer’s thrill of watching a somewhat seasoned filmmaker take on an endeavor that’s larger than anything they’ve done before, while a studio gambles on their promise to deliver. With directors making their biggest projects yet here, these films can be do-or-die moments within a ruthlessly competitive business.

Jurassic World (June 12): The biggest daredevil leap from indie to big-time this season belongs to Colin Trevorrow, who made the 2012 time travel indie “Safety Not Guaranteed” and now has the responsibility of reviving the “Jurassic Park” franchise. Star power from Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Omar Sy and Jake Johnson won’t hurt, but as rare as dinosaurs may be, audiences will have plenty of CG action to choose from—here’s hoping Trevorrow (who also co-wrote) has created an irresistible visit to a franchise not built upon since 2001. 

Ant-Man (July 17): This project has become half-superhero movie, half-director fiasco, with initial visionary director Edgar Wright leaving mid-production, only to be replaced by Peyton Reed, of such not-so-action-packed movies like "Bring It On" and "Yes Man." Reed's an unlikely choice to put it mildly, and his creation of action scenes, or sense of humor, will provide the main spectacle aside from this B-level superhero character. Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Bobby Cannavale and Judy Greer star.

Masterminds (August 7): It’s a delight to see "Napoleon Dynamite" director Jared Hess (“a garage sale Wes Anderson,” as my girlfriend affectionately defines him) back to work in 2015. He has been absent since 2009’s wrongly disregarded “Gentleman Broncos,” but at this past Sundance his feature starring Sam Rockwell, “Don Verdean,” was picked up before it even premiered. Now he’s got a true crime comedy with Zach Galifianakis, Owen Wilson and Kristen Wiig, as co-written by Jody Hill (“Observe and Report”) and Danny McBride; all promising ingredients for sturdy comedy. Hopefully this unexpected return to Hollywood provides Hess with a much-needed career restart.

Fantastic Four (August 7): Director Josh Trank already has his next few gigs lined up, such a mysterious "Star Wars" movie and a sequel to “Fantastic Four,” so the powers that employ in Tinseltown must like what they’ve seen from this project already. Still, for those who have only seen Trank's "Chronicle" and are now watching him take on a serious reboot, it’ll be intriguing to see his additions to the franchise, and mainly how he'll package the brand of a foursome that has never really made a huge box office impression. The new line-up includes Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, and Toby Kebbell

ANIMATED SELECTIONS

This season’s array of animated features is made up of various revered creative companies, who also help make this category one of the most international sections of the season.

When Marnie Was There (May 22): This tale about an unlikely friendship from “The Secret World of Arrietty” director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has an underlying significance—it’s rumored to be the last film from Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli. The US version will feature the voice talents of Kathy Bates, Ava Acres, Ellen Burstyn, Geena Davis, and Mila Brener.

Minions (July 10): The famous gibberish sidekicks from the “Despicable Me” franchise, as created by American production company Illumination Entertainment, hope to strike box office gold with this prequel. Sandra Bullock voices a villainous character with the last name of “Overkill” alongside Jon Hamm, Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, Steve Coogan, and Katy Mixon.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (August 7): Not to miss out on the possibilities of spin-offs, British company Aardman Animations returns with their own, this time for a character from the “Wallace and Gromit” universe. This feels like the proper time to appreciate its poster tagline in the UK - “Catch them if ewe can!”

Underdogs (August 14): Americans will finally get to see this Argentinian animated film about - of all sports - foosball, from “The Secret in Their Eyes” director Juan Jose Campanella. This curious project broke Argentina box office records in its native release, and is the most expensive Latin American feature of all time. The US dub will feature the voice talents of Ariana Grande, Nicholas Hoult, Bobby Moynihan, John Leguizamo, Taran Killam, Matthew Morrison, and Chazz Palminteri

MIDNIGHT MOVIES FOR ANY TIME OF THE DAY

Whether packing on the sexiness or being full of Satan knows what, this season also offers features whose genre aspirations would be welcome in a regular fest’s “Midnight”categorization. Added bonus - not having to stay up late to check them out.

Poltergeist” (May 22): The latest classic horror film to get the reboot treatment is Tobe Hooper’s 1982 film. This time, the tale of a family facing evil forces is working from a screenplay adapted by “Rabbit Hole” scribe David Lindsay-Abaire, under the direction of “Monster House” helmer Gil Kenan. Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie Dewitt star.

Magic Mike XXL” (July 1): Steven Soderbergh’s right-hand first assistant director Gregory Jacobs takes over directing Channing Tatum’s sexy male stripper showcase, after wowing audiences in 2012. Expect less drama and even more flesh from a cast that includes Tatum, Elizabeth Banks, Matt Bomer, Andie MacDowell, Joe Manganiello, Jada Pinkett Smith, Donald Glover, Gabriel Iglesias, and Amber Heard.

The Gallows” (July 10): In this feature from rising writer/directors Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, a group of students decide to resurrect a school play that led to ruthless disaster 20 years ago, but that turns out to be the best idea. Featuring the on-screen talents of Cassidy Gifford, Pfeifer Brown, Ryan Shoos, Reese Mishler, and Alexis Schneider.

The Vatican Tapes” (July 24): “Crank” co-director Mark Neveldine ventures to the horror genre in a robust log line that could sell quite a few comic books at the very least: “A priest and two Vatican exorcists must do battle with an ancient satanic force to save the soul of a young woman.” Starring Djimon Hounsou, Kathleen Robertson, Dougray Scott, Olivia Dudley, and Michael Peña.

Sinister 2” (August 21): The breakout director of Irish horror film “Citadel” Ciaran Foy now finds himself working with this home movie horror series, from a script by C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson. Starring Shannyn Sossamon and James Ransone.

ACTUAL FESTIVAL FILMS

Of course, this summer is also going to offer plenty of opportunities to catch up on the titles that have played film fests of genuine credibility, and whose heavy buzz makes it worth a verifying view. With many to include, the following are just a few to keep on your moviegoing radar:

Results (May 29): One of the best films I saw at Sundance this past year, writer/director Andrew Bujalski’s fitness comedy is primed to shake up the current definition of the romantic comedy, while proving Cobie Smulders as a golden film lead. 

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (June 12): Based on the book by Jesse Andrews, this year's surprise Sundance darling/future indie classic opens in limited theaters to enchant viewers with its quirky cinephilia and life lessons. Starring Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, Connie Britton, Bobb’e J. Thompson, and Nick Offerman.

Dope (June 19): Rick Famuyiwa had a similar Sundance breakout hit with his self-proclaimed "coming of age comedy/drama for the post hip hop age.” Brian Tallerico dug the film at the festival stating that it “doesn’t feel like anything else.” Sounds like an excellent antidote to some CGI summer hangovers. This one features the talents of Zoë Kravitz, Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, A$AP Rocky, and Forest Whitaker.

"Big Game" (June 26): Here's one of your more uncommon action options this season: A Finnish teenager (Onni Tommila) camping in the woods helps the President of the United States evade kidnappers after Air Force One is shot down. Did we mention that the POTUS is played by Samuel L. Jackson? This highly curious adventure from Toronto last year also stars Victor Garber, Felicity Huffman, Ray Stevenson, Mehmet Kurtulus and Ted Levine.

The Look of Silence (July 17): Director Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his Oscar-nominated Indonesian genocide doc "The Act of Killing" with "The Look of Silence,” which follows a family that escaped mass killings confronting the men who murdered one of their siblings. 

Irrational Man (July 24): This year's Woody Allen movie has an emblematically indifferent title, and stars Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone (you can probably guess the plot). It will premiere at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival before its stateside release on July 24.

The End of the Tour (July 31): Director James Ponsoldt’s latest film involves Jason Segel playing author David Foster Wallace, acting opposite Jesse Eisenberg as a Rolling Stone reporter. The Sundance 2015 favorite recently wooed Ebertfest as well, and will be playing the Chicago Critics Film Festival next week. 

The 2015 summer season’s nationwide film festival runs from May 1 - August 28. 


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